When Tiger was 6 months old, he would sit in our garage, watching me hit balls into a net. He had been assimilating his golf swing. When he got out of the high chair, he had a golf swing.” —Earl Woods
Hindsight they say, is 20-20. I have always found it fascinating how people retrospectively view the making of their own success. Or in this case their child’s success. Their “observations” frequently take on a certain “wisdom of the guru” quality, and the musings of Earl Woods are a fine example: “He had been assimilating his golf swing.” Well yes, that and probably theorizing a new branch of Quantum physics, when, of course, he wasn’t busy translating the Lotus Sutra from the original Sanskrit, or spitting up his pureed peas.
The year may be quite young, but the world of golf has wasted no time in treating those of us who follow it to some very bizarre doings. The New York Times has recently reported that a 6-year-old had won a golf tournament in North Carolina. And not a tournament at the local pitch and putt. The tournament was a “World Championship,” complete with a nationally known corporate sponsor. Now for the purpose of this column (and wouldn’t you know it, I went and gave it away: yes, this column does have a purpose) both the child—and the emphasis here is on the word
the child and the nationally known corporate sponsor will go unnamed. Not that I am opposed to recognizing, even celebrating any child’s (there’s that word again) athletic accomplishments. Quite the contrary, I think all kids should be encouraged to play at something competitive, but I am decidedly opposed to any approach that can be, at best, described as a bit “over the top,” an action that in both swinging the golf club and raising the child, rarely brings about the desired result. So nameless they will be because it is my contention that notoriety (a word of decidedly ambiguous qualities) is the lifeblood of this and much other media fueled insanity over athletic precocity. How did we arrive here? Must all such stories lead inexorably back to Mike Douglas? Yes Mike Douglas. Who has not seen the 1978 video of a 2-year-old named Tiger hitting balls on late night TV, and this years before the word “phenom” became the dubious badge of honor to be earned by every over-produced child in the country?
Woods’s ability was, at the time, viewed with an appropriate mixture of amusement and appreciation. Today, however, given the unprecedented success which has followed Tiger’s maturation, every 6-year-old’s well struck seven iron has come not only to be compared to that of Woods, but also weighted with the baggage of his or her parents’ dreams. That club is likely to get pretty heavy, pretty fast, at the top of a backswing, upon which so much apparently depends.
The current story has it that the child’s parents relocated the family to a suburb of Las Vegas (Why does that not surprise me?) in order to better be able to hone the child’s game skills. There, under the guidance of a swing coach, the little boy “plays” four to five times a week, one to three hours per session. My memories of having been 6 are of at least some help with regards to things like play, attention span, and fun. Remember fun? It was something that children once were capable of having without video cameras, cell phones, handheld Play Stations and unthinkably enough, without adult supervision. Six-year-olds were once taught to play by 7-year-olds, and no one was any the worse for it.
Today, with every child’s first swing of the club, or bat, or hockey stick being captured on video, not for sentimentality’s sake, but rather to be analyzed, posted on You Tube, and generally revered as the harbinger of some future legacy, one has to wonder if in fact much more is being lost than gained.
Every child wants to believe it possible that he or she can play shortstop for the New York Yankees, or throw it down like Lebron, for dreams and aspirations are the seedbed of youthful creativity; and according to more than a few of those who have succeeded, early aspirations have been a common element in their success. Not coincidentally, it may well be that the proper nurturing of the dream component is among the foremost responsibilities of parenting. The question becomes where does a parent draw the line between guidance, and the unsubtle expression of one’s own dreams, deferred or otherwise?
There is much murky water in any present moment weighted with expectations, and considerably more such waters lie ahead for any maker of the next Tiger, or Jeter or Gretsky or James. One need only consider that few parents of future stars ever seem to have a contingency plan. Few indeed are the photo ops given to a child whose aspiration is to make it to the Hooters tour, bang around for a few years, and then settle into a little job at a nine-holer in Sheboygan. We are culturally addicted to a fascination with the next great thing, and sadly make no distinction or consideration as to whether that thing is a high definition television, or a 6-year-old with a golf club. This cultural disregard for childhood is not the sole provenance of the world of sports. It rears its ugly head in everything from prepubescent beauty contests to nationally televised spelling bees, from chess tournaments to child music-video stars. A nation of children in need of endless diversion, we have sadly turned to our children to provide it, and if we can make them famous, and better yet rich along the way, so much the better. This hyperbolic parental aspiration has as its driving force (although not its sole force) the same crushing idea that has brought this nation to its current state of crisis: the pursuit of money. Too harsh an assessment you say? I have just two words for you: Sean O’Hair. No wait make that four words: Michelle Wie.
There is no need to review these two stories of modern day stage parents who all but ruined their children’s childhoods. Mercifully, Sean O’Hair seems to be well on his way to becoming his own man, and my suspicion is that he will handle his child rearing responsibilities considerably differently than his father handled his. And as for Miss Wie, we can only hope that the damage is not irreparable. I have seen her up close, and the talent is enormous. Only time will tell if she can summon something up from within, in order to stage what one might think of as incongruous at the age of 20: A professional comeback. I shudder to think at what age our precocious 6-year-old will be making his.