Tuesday August 5th, 2008

The speakers in the Smurf-blue Cadillac Escalade with the custom suspension and the 24-inch rims used to bump Outkast and 311. Now, the video screen behind the driver's seat headrest of the factory-issue Toyota 4Runner that replaced the Caddy plays a loop of Tom and Jerry, Finding Nemo and Cars. Behind the wheel, William Augustus Tryon IV negotiates America's interstates, looking for the exit that will take him to the next mid-sized town and the next chance at earning his way back to the PGA Tour.

Remember Tryon? You know him better as Ty, the wunderkind nicknamed after Chevy Chase's Caddyshack character who rocked the Lacy Underalls off the Tour in 2001, when, at 16, he became the youngest player to make the cut at a Tour event in 44 years. A month after he turned 17, he led after the first round of the B.C. Open. Later that year, Tryon fired a 66 on the last day of the Tour's qualifying school to become the youngest player to earn his Tour card. At the Phoenix Open, his first tourney after Q-school, Tryon walked off a plane, hopped into a rented SUV and headed to the sprawling Scottsdale Princess resort. At the 2003 Wachovia Championship, the 18-year-old drove a club member's Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph because he wasn't old enough to use one of a fleet of Mercedes courtesy cars. Tryon's wild ride lasted until October 2003, when he walked off the 18th green at the Funai Classic at No. 196 on the money list. Since their client had not turned into the next Tiger Woods, Tryon's sponsors moved on to the next phenom.

Now 24, Tryon stays in Comfort Inns. He drives to compete in the Monday qualifier of most Nationwide Tour events -- cross-country, if necessary -- with wife Hanna riding shotgun and 2-year-old son Tyson in the back, cracking up every time Jerry gets the best of Tom. "I love what I do. For me, at least, you have to come back to earth or come close to losing it to really appreciate it," Tryon says. "I don't take it for granted anymore about being a pro golfer or doing this for a living. Life's stressful enough. I just want to be on the golf course, and everything else kind of fades away."

Tryon survived the crush of teen fame and emerged as a wise-beyond-his-years husband and father who still dreams of making it big on the PGA Tour. But his trip through the wringer of media hype, corporate sponsorships and unfulfilled, unrealistic expectations begs the question: In an era when the star-making machinery in individual sports such as golf, tennis, gymnastics and auto-racing cranks up earlier than ever, at what age is an athlete ready to handle the pressure of stardom?

There is no easy answer. For every Maria Sharapova or Tracy Austin, who thrived on the tennis court as teens despite potentially crushing expectations, there is a Jennifer Capriati, who turned pro at 13 and was arrested for marijuana possession at 18 in a Coral Gables, Fla., hotel room alongside friends who later would accuse her of also using crack and heroin. For every Joey Logano, the racing prodigy who has a win and five top-10 finishes on the NASCAR Nationwide Series since turning 18 in May and who may take over Tony Stewart's No. 20 Sprint Cup ride next season, there is a Tryon.

Later this month, female gymnasts as young as 16 -- or possibly 14 -- will take the floor in Beijing with the hopes of their nations resting on their shoulders. Meanwhile, marketers will monitor the results of junior tennis tournaments throughout the world, looking for the next Sharapova, who, by 17, already had won Wimbledon and signed endorsement deals with Motorola, Pepsi and Honda. And on a racetrack somewhere in the South, a 5-foot-2, 108-pound redhead who can't get his driver's license until 2010 will pilot a Super Late Model car at 150 mph past men twice his age.

Six years ago, Rick Ruffin couldn't help but notice the way his son, Logan, dominated every racing simulation video game he played. Ruffin, a Nashville-area investment banker, asked his son if he'd like to race cars for real. Four weeks after Rick and his wife, Shelley, decided to let Logan try driving quarter midgets. He zoomed through division after division and in February 13-year-old Logan stunned the racing world by winning three consecutive ASA Late Model Series feature races.

Logan, who turned 14 last month, likely will move to the USAR Pro Cup Series in January. There, he'll race a 3,300-pound car that isn't that different from the ones on the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. A Pro Cup car can generate 625 horsepower compared to 700 for a 3,300-pound Nationwide Series car and 800 for a 3,400-pound Sprint Cup car. A Toyota Camry, meanwhile, generates 158 horsepower.

Logan is home schooled by his mother -- a country singer who has altered her career plans to help her son's racing career -- because his racing schedule would force him to miss too many classes. Other parents of phenoms have tried to keep their children in public school to give their child a sense of normalcy. Shawn Johnson, a 16-year-old gymnast who hopes to medal in Beijing, still attends Valley High in West Des Moines, Iowa. Gymnast Shannon Miller won five medals at the 1992 Olympics while a student at Edmond (Okla.) North High.

Austin, who was 16 when she won the 1979 U.S. Open, said attending Rolling Hills (Calif.) High helped her cope with the sudden crush of fame. "I had something normal to go back to," Austin says. "Socially, it grounded me. It gave me some diversity in terms of what I focused on."

Despite the flexibility of home-schooling, the Ruffins still try to manage the schedule so Logan has a chance to be a normal 14-year-old. "If anything," Rick Ruffin said, "we look at the schedule and try to temper it." Given the choice, Logan might spend all day at the track or at Peyton Manning's D1 Sports Training complex, where he began training earlier this summer to help him build stamina to deal with temperatures that can reach 140 degrees inside a fire suit on race day. "I wake my mom earlier than she wants to get up (to go to D1)," Logan says. "I'm not being pushed into it. I do it because I want to."

Logan has his own Web site, a primary sponsorship deal with Terminix and 10 product sponsorship deals. The sponsorships, Rick said, are a necessity to pay the high cost of maintaining and transporting Logan's race team. But does the fact that companies are investing in Logan put unnecessary pressure on a boy whose peers' weightiest concerns include reading Romeo and Juliet for English class and unlocking songs on Rock Band? "He understands the business side of what he's doing," Rick Ruffin says. "He also understands the fun side of what he's doing. That's what we're concerned with -- that he's having fun."

Lenny Wiersma, a sports psychologist who is co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Responsible Youth Sport at Cal State Fullerton, says having sponsors can stress a young athlete who may feel responsible if the sponsors don't get the expected return on their investment. "Consider," Wiersma says, "how many people stand to make money because of (the athlete's) success."

Sharapova is the world's highest paid female athlete. SI.com estimates she made $22 million last year. Johnson's endorsements have earned only a tiny fraction of that amount, but her parents have placed their daughter's earnings in an account that will allow her to pay for college and have a nest egg. But some young athletes have trouble understanding that a company essentially is gambling when it throws money at a phenom. Tryon, who at 17 signed multimillion-dollar deals with Target stores and the Calloway golf equipment company, said he struggled with the thought that he was letting his sponsors down.

"I didn't make it about the relationship for the long term," he says. "It was all about now. So when I started shooting not-so-great scores and started not doing so well, I thought that was all it was about. When that went away, I felt empty. I thought, 'Oh man. What do I have to offer now?'"

Tryon, who still uses Calloway clubs, bears no ill will toward any of his former sponsors. He invested his money wisely, and, unlike most 24-year-olds, he owns his home outright and has his own country club membership. He just isn't sure that, as a teen, he was prepared to be a pitchman and media darling on top of being a world-class golfer.

"I was very pressed for my time. People needed me here. People needed me there," he says. "I had obligations, as well as trying to grow up myself. I was still a teenager. It was just a lot of moving parts, but in the end, it's all about getting the ball in the hole. It definitely can be a distraction if you're not prepared to deal with it positively or in the right frame of mind.

"I don't think I did that bad with it, but it definitely had a little bit of an effect on my play. I handled it the way I did. I was young."

Wiersma, the sports psychologist, believes "helicopter parents," who constantly hover over their child's career, can ruin a childhood. But, he said, his research has shown that most parents of phenoms don't spend every day trying to whip their child to stardom. "It's very rare for a parent to do something over the line, but those cases receive all the attention," Wiersma says.

The public remembers parents such as the father of golfer Se Ri Pak, who occasionally camped with his daughter in a cemetery to build her courage. People also remember Stefano Capriati, who, after his daughter entered drug rehab in 1994, told an Italian newspaper that he probably pushed young Jennifer too hard. Not coincidentally, after that dark chapter, a more mature Jennifer Capriati returned to tennis and blossomed into a champion.

Sometimes, Wiersma says, young athletes simply have an oversized competitive drive to match their oversized athletic gifts, and parents must help manage that zeal. The drive, Wiersma says, will "serve that kid very well later in life," but it can prove combustible when mixed into a stew of raging teenage hormones.

Austin, who has seen every type of teen phenom as a player and tennis commentator, says parents and agents must create opportunities that allow even the most hypercompetitive athlete to decompress by participating in typical teen activities. "They need to carve out that time," Austin says. "That lengthens careers."

Weirsma says, in some cases, parents can add pressure only because of their natural instinct to want the best for their child. He says the proliferation of training academies in multiple sports has raised the stakes for what used to be children's games. When only a few elite training centers existed, parents usually had to move families long distances so their child could receive top-notch instruction. That forced those parents to carefully examine whether their child really had the ability and the desire to play high-level sports.

Now, training academies have popped up everywhere. A mom who wants to give her 6-year-old the chance to be a top swimmer now may spend a fortune on private lessons at the center a town away, not realizing that the child -- consciously or not -- might recognize the time and resources invested and begin to feel that mom's love is contingent on her success in the pool.

"The potential," Wiersma says, "is that any kid who has any semblance of talent early on, faces the same pressures early (in life) that 20 years ago were reserved only for the very best."

Parents also must consider the physiological aspects of their child's training. Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine specialist who wrote The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide For Parents, says parents must first understand that research has shown that children who focus on one sport exclusively face a higher injury risk.

Besides that, because most phenoms endure intense training during puberty, they must take extra precautions because their growth can leave them at risk for injuries they wouldn't normally suffer. "As they grow, their bones grow faster than their muscles," Metzl said. "They're prone to more injury because they lose flexibility."

Also, Metzl says, the cartilage growth plates at the end of bones are especially susceptible to injury during periods of rapid growth. An injury to those areas suffered during puberty, Metzel says, can nag an athlete for life.

So what can parents do? They can mix it up. Logan Ruffin's parents have the right idea. Their son follows a strength and cardiovascular conditioning program that allows him more variety than simply training on the track. And they have little problem convincing Logan to train, especially after a chat last month with back-flipping NASCAR star Carl Edwards, who stressed that conditioning is a major factor in his success.

In several sports, governing bodies force phenoms to wait until they reach a certain age before they can compete at the highest level. In September 2001, a few months before Tryon earned his Tour card, the PGA instituted a rule that players had to be 18 to be full tour members. Younger players could use sponsor's exemptions and keep prize money, but no winnings would be counted on the money list. Tryon had to wait until he turned 18, in June 2002, to play a full schedule. The LPGA has a similar rule, but it was waived in 2005 for Morgan Pressel, who received full membership three months before her 18th birthday. In tennis, the WTA allows young teens to play in some pro tournaments but limits full tour membership to those 18 and older. The ATP allows players to enter as many tournaments as they wish once they turn 16.

In Olympic gymnastics, athletes are supposed to be at least 16. Late last month, The New York Times uncovered online records that suggest two Chinese gymnasts slated to compete in the Olympics may only be 14. Chinese officials responded to the story by producing passports that say He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are 16, but questions have persisted. The Times obtained two online records of official registration lists that listed He's birthday as Jan. 1, 1994. He is a favorite to win gold in the uneven bars.

Why would anyone want such a young child competing at such a high level? Nellie Kim, a five-time gold medalist from the former Soviet Union, told the Times younger gymnasts may have a physical advantage because they are lighter and a mental advantage because they are less aware of the danger inherent in some routines. "It's easier to do tricks," Kim told the Times. "And psychologically, I think they worry less."

Logan Ruffin, meanwhile, will have to wait until 2012 before he can race a Craftsman Series truck, a Nationwide Series car or a Sprint Cup car -- unless NASCAR changes the rules and installs a 21-year-old age limit for Sprint Cup. That wouldn't sit well with current star Kyle Busch, who was 16 when NASCAR passed the 18-year-old age limit in 2002. Busch, who leads the Sprint Cup standings at age 22, has said any driver who can prove his mettle on the track should be allowed to race. Rick Ruffin, meanwhile, said he is content to let Logan wait if NASCAR decides to raise the age limit. "That's OK if they do," Rick says. "If that's the rule, that's the rule."

Besides, the Ruffins have been dealing with a driving age limit for years. Logan recalled a conversation with another driver in Florida earlier this year. "He said, 'You're going out there and beating our butts on the racetrack, and you can't even drive yourself here,'" says Logan, who wouldn't mind a Roush Mustang or a Mazda RX-8 when he finally can get his driver's license. Meanwhile, Rick worries more about Logan driving the speed limit on Interstate 65 than he does about him hurtling around a speedway.

"I watch him go around a racetrack at 150 mph because I know what safety equipment he has," Rick said. "In a street car, without all that equipment, I worry about the other people on the road ... But he'll be a very good defensive driver."

Rick Ruffin knows people will read about Logan's life and assume that Rick is some frustrated former racer living vicariously through his son. That isn't true, Rick said. Rick knew next to nothing about race cars until Logan began rocketing through the ranks. Now, Rick and Shelley Ruffin try to give Logan as normal an upbringing as possible while allowing him the chance to reach an elite level in his chosen sport. Unfortunately, there isn't exactly a how-to book for the situations the Ruffins face.

"You try to start with the basics. You make them a good person, and you try to protect them," Rick says. "Then you let them do what they were put on this earth to do. In Logan's case, that's drive a race car."

Though his world ranking might not reflect it at the moment, Ty Tryon still believes he was put on this earth to whack a golf ball. He believes his work the past few months with swing coach Ji Kim has strengthened his game to the point where he can begin his climb back to the PGA Tour. And despite the heartache and the barbecuing he took in the press during his formative years, he wouldn't change his decision to turn pro so young. Golf allowed him to see the world, and it taught him about himself.

Tryon would, however, offer some advice to his younger self that he didn't learn until he found himself responsible for another life. Tryon at 24 would tell Tryon at 18 to keep a tight circle of trusted friends. He also would tell himself not to worry so much about the last round. Worry more about the big picture.

"For the past couple of years, I underachieved probably because I just kind of sabotaged myself -- maybe it was negative memories of being so popular," Tryon says. "For whatever reason, having a child really changes that. You get out of your own head."

Tryon believes he will return to the Tour and that the lessons he learned as a teen will help him stick around longer this time. Then, after about 15 or 20 years of sustained success, Tryon may re-examine his life phenom. "One day," he said, "I'll probably write a book."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.