I wish I spoke the language, just so I could understand what they were saying to the little boy.
And he was little, at a guess, not much older than nine, possibly 10.
The head of the cut down driver he was swinging was almost as big as his. If he was using a full-sized club, it would have towered over him.
At least at the start of the round, he looked like he wanted to be there, playing in this non-descript junior golf tournament.
The boy certainly looked the part – shoes, socks, shorts, belt, shirt, cap, even his sunglasses, all perfectly colour coded and conveying intent, if not his own, then definitely his parents. The clubs were similarly expressive.
From the first tee, neither mother nor father were ever more than five metres away, handing him irons, pointing out targets, and barking instructions – before and after he played his shot.
After a conciliatory start, the family unit gradually started to unravel, each false stroke drawing admonishment from the parents, while the small boy explained away as best he could his misfortune. His failure.
The chip that didn’t run on, the putt that didn’t break, even a bunker shot that hit the hole and didn’t go in – the boy would routinely drop a hand off the club and hold his arm out in disbelief, the same way the professionals do on television.
Remarkably, despite the incessant barrage of verbal abuse, there were no tears or tantrums, just a steely resolve to get it right next time. To meet his parents’ unrealistic, even cruel expectations.
It made for uncomfortable viewing. The other parents, strolling around the course in silent support, simply enjoying the autumn sunshine, began to distance themselves from greens and tee boxes, where most of the gratuitous instruction and advice was being meted out.
It reached the point when we felt compelled to say something, even provide a little counter encouragement.
“You’re doing so well mat …. how long have you been playing?” I said to the small boy, after he’d carded another brave bogey on another unreachable par four.
“Two years,” he said, without making eye contact.
“And what’s your handicap?”
“Good on you – that’s fantastic.”
I got down to nine once. For about four hours. Until my next game, when I vomited all over myself. I was back out to 10 the following week. Statistically, only some 5% of all golfers make it to a single figure handicap, and this kid has arrived there in two years.
After a few more polite questions, I established he was in fact just eight years of age, the $300 sunglasses playing their part in concealing his baby face, and certainly any hint of vulnerability. Throughout the round, he remained stoic in the face of his parents’ dogmatism.
I couldn’t help but ask: “Do your Mum and Dad play golf?”
“They used to, but they stopped,” he said, again peering straight ahead.
I bet they did, I thought to myself. Probably found the game too bloody hard. Or got sick of people yelling at them, pointing out what they were doing wrong.
For four hours, I tried as hard as I could to temper judgement. After all, what business was it of mine or anybody else? Their race, their jockey, they can issue whatever riding instructions they like, I kept telling myself, without for a moment believing it to be true.
It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. You see it all the time in professional sport. Parents with their own unfulfilled sporting dreams, driving their kids to within an inch of their life in pursuit of excellence, even fame and fortune. Sport as we know, can be a passport to a better life. For everybody.
The real psychos tend to gravitate towards the individual sports, for reasons that need little explanation. Tennis and golf are two hotbeds of unhealthy parental ambition, even obsession.
In researching a book a few years ago, I was told of Korean parents who locked their 21-year-old son out of their rented accommodation in Florida, while he was trying to qualify for the US PGA tour. “You going to play like that – you find your own place to sleep,” the golfer was told as the front door slammed in his face.
He bunked down in the back seat of a rental car for two nights until an improved 3rd round granted him some respite.
Another father, caddying for his 18-year-old in a tournament, was so incensed by a careless double bogey, he dragged the aspiring teenager into the scrub, slapped him in the face and stormed off the course.
And then there’s tennis. Oh dear. Poke your head into any top-level junior tournament, and you’ll spot them on the sidelines, an arm’s length from the action. Arms folded, eyes peeled. Does the name Tomic ring a bell? From what I can tell, the poor kid doesn’t even like the game.
If you ever get a chance, read Andre Agassi’s wonderful autobiography, “Open”, and you’ll learn all about his father, Mike. Now there’s an interesting human.
Are the majority of parents like this? Of course not, but it’s a real thing – ask the coaches and officials. Start ‘em early, treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen. There’s evidence it gets results. At least for a little while.
The problem is, when the “prodigal children” grow old enough, the fear gradually disappears. And so does the parent’s control. The relationship breaks down – the “kids” start to think and act for themselves. Often, they quit, or just stop trying. Does the name Tomic ring a bell?
As we were packing the clubs into the car, I saw the small boy receiving one final double-barrelled dressing down. I still couldn’t understand the words of course, but from the tone and the accompanying body language, it was abundantly clear, the boy had failed them. He must do better.
On a human level, I felt nothing but sorrow.
It will be interesting to chart the small boy’s progress in the game.
Who knows? His parents may well yet produce an all-conquering world champion.
But there’s an even smaller chance of them producing a happy, well-adjusted champion human being.
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