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Tour Pro Prep Is your child the next Tiger? The parents who send their kids to the Leadbetter Academy are willing to pay a bundle to find out

Jan. 17, 2000
Jan. 17, 2000

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Jan. 17, 2000

Tour Pro Prep Is your child the next Tiger? The parents who send their kids to the Leadbetter Academy are willing to pay a bundle to find out

"I think it takes at least eight years to develop a golfer who
knows how to win, but I believe we can build a scratch golfer in
four years."
--Gary Gilchrist, director, David Leadbetter Junior Golf Academy

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 2000 issue Original Layout

What's a mother to do? Tess O'Brien's teenage son, Will, dreamed
of playing on a college golf team, so in August 1998 she left her
suburban home in Martinsburg, W.Va., and rented a tiny apartment
in Bradenton, Fla. She and her husband, Rob, plopped down $19,305
for Will's nonboarding tuition at the David Leadbetter Junior
Golf Academy and an additional $8,000 for a year at Bradenton
Academy. They ponied up another $1,000 so their son could get
extra attention from a sports psychologist. Pressed for income,
Tess went back to work as a schoolteacher. Now she sees her
husband only every four to eight weeks, when he can take off a
few days from his law practice. "It's crazy," says Tess. "People
think we've taken leave of our senses."

Tess laughs, but her laugh tails off into a moan. She and Will,
who's now 18, moved last summer into their second Bradenton
apartment, a condo in a coral-colored complex on Sarasota Bay.
The windows are curtainless. There's not much furniture.
"Sometimes it's hard, but it's worth it," she says. "Every day
we're here is preparing Will for life."

Yes, but what about golf? Will was shooting in the mid-80s when
he enrolled in the Leadbetter Academy. Dozens of lessons and
thousands of range balls later, the lanky youngster plays to a
handicap of 2.5, and Division I coaches aren't beating a path to
his door. "We're O.K. with that," his mother says. "We didn't
think we were making the next Tiger Woods."

Marc O'Hair, however, thinks he is making the next Tiger, and
he's not as patient as the O'Briens. In 1997 O'Hair, a shutter
merchant in Texas, moved to Florida and enrolled his son in the
Leadbetter Academy. Last fall, 17-year-old Sean became the
youngest player ever to survive the first stage of the PGA Tour
qualifying school. But the elder O'Hair says it is his coaching,
not David Leadbetter's, that made his son great, and he yanked
Sean out of the golf school a little more than a year ago.

Then you have the Wongluekiets of Thailand. Convinced that they
were raising not only the next Tiger Woods (their son, Chan,
ranks second among U.S. juniors), but also two Se Ri Paks
(identical twins Naree and Aree, rank third and fourth,
respectively), the Wongluekiets sold their hotel in Thailand and
moved the family to Bradenton, where they spend more than
$100,000 a year educating the kids and paying their expenses on
the American Junior Golf Association circuit.

The Wongluekiets live in a parallel universe, a sort of
Thailand-on-the-Tamiami Trail. They park their shoes inside the
door of their three-bedroom condo and pad around the rooms,
speaking Thai one minute, English the next. The children do their
homework at the dining room table while their mother, Vanee,
prepares Thai noodles in the kitchen and their father, In-Jong
Song, picks invisible insects off the floor with sticky paper. "I
don't want the children to stay in the dormitory," says Vanee.
"Our culture is different. We don't give them freedom until they
are grown enough to know what is good and bad."

Clearly, it's not easy being the parent of a golfer these
days--not since the Leadbetter Academy opened in Bradenton six
years ago. You used to be able to raise a tour pro on a diet of
club tournaments and high school golf, followed by a leisurely
five years at Arizona State or Florida. Now you're afraid your
kid won't even get a scholarship unless he's trained by the same
people who coach Greg Norman and Nick Price.

You should be worried. While your daughter is getting a weekly
lesson from the club pro, the Leadbetter kids are working three
hours a day with instructors trained by the world's most famous
teacher. While your son is watching TV before dinner, the
Leadbetter kids are stretching and bulking up under the watchful
eye of fitness coaches from the International Performance
Institute. While your Valley girl is cruising the mall, the
Leadbetter teens are playing nine holes on a Donald Ross-designed
course, accompanied by a coach and a psychologist. "They have
everything covered," says Tess O'Brien, "the mental, the
physical, the facilities, the courses."

If you're still not ready to sell your Microsoft shares and move
to Bradenton, here's something else to consider: The U.S. Amateur
champ, Texas sophomore David Gossett, is a Leadbetter alum; the
U.S. junior girls champion, 13-year-old Aree Wongluekiet, is the
youngest person ever to win a USGA title; Candy Hannemann, a
Leadbetter grad, helped Duke win the 1999 women's NCAA title;
eight Leadbetter kids are among the top 20 in the junior
rankings; and nine Leadbetter kids were first-team All-America on
the AJGA circuit last year.

In Bradenton the Leadbetter name takes second billing to that of
Nick Bollettieri, the fiery tennis coach who molded the games of
Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles. The Bollettieri
Tennis Academy was purchased by International Management Group in
the '80s, and now the IMG Academies include the Leadbetter school
(90 full-time students), a soccer division (60), a fledgling
baseball school (12) and the Bollettieri Academy's 160 tennis
players. The organization chart looks like a New York City subway
map. The sports-representation division of IMG, which guides the
careers of many star athletes, represents Leadbetter, the thin
Englishman in the trademark straw hat. Another division of IMG
operates 15 Leadbetter golf academies on three continents.

"It has been a positive marriage," says Ted Meekma, who started
27 years ago with Bollettieri and now serves IMG as director of
its sports academies. Meekma approached Leadbetter six years
ago--before Tigermania and Sergio Garcia--with the idea for a
junior golf division. Leadbetter was keen, but there was
skepticism among the tennis and golf pros. Golfers, they said,
didn't develop in their teens. They learned slowly, went to
college and began to win pro tournaments in their late 20s.

Still, there seemed to be little risk in starting a golf academy.
Meekma rented and upgraded a commercial driving range in
Bradenton. He then bought afternoon tee times at the Legacy Golf
Club and the Sara Bay Country Club. "We were basically in
business without too much capital expense," he says. The junior
golf academy opened in September 1994 with one instructor, one
assistant and four full-time students, including a boy from the
Czech Republic who had never played the game.

The challenge was figuring out what to do with all the available
teaching time. The kids attended school from 7:45 a.m. until
12:30 p.m., either at the private Bradenton Academy or the
church-affiliated St. Stephen's School. That left a three-hour
window between lunch and fitness sessions. "The Leadbetter guys
were great teachers, fabulous technicians," says Meekma, "but
they normally worked with adults for two or three hours. What
were they going to do with kids for nine months?"

Wear more hats, that's what. At Bradenton the golf teachers are
called coaches, and woe to the person who calls them swing gurus.
Each coach handles seven or eight girls and boys and performs the
multiple roles of teacher, parent, big brother, entertainer and
pal. The only role they refuse to play is babysitter. "Kids need
to be responsible for their games and their lives," says
Gilchrist, the director of golf.

The Leadbetter Academy is not what the tennis academy used to
be--a boot camp for athletic kids. Neither is it an Olympic-style
development program that produces a hundred teenage burnouts for
every gold medalist. "They're kids," says Meekma. "It has to be
fun."

It looks like fun. At one practice green Gilchrist arrives with
three hula hoops over his shoulder. At another, the kids try to
make 50 consecutive three-foot putts. On the range, coach
Jonathan Yarwood has Naree Wongluekiet hitting balls with a
director's chair leaning against her backside. A few stations
down, a half dozen kids watch in astonishment as range assistant
Jeff Simpson crushes balls 350 yards with a borrowed driver. "I
love it," says Ty Tryon, 15, the nation's fourth-ranked junior
boy. "They push you, but you're around a lot of kids so you never
get tired of it."

As further protection against burnout, the Academy has golf-free
weeks. The kids go to the beach, to the movies, deep-sea fishing,
camping, bowling ("I don't bowl," says Naree. "I'd go farther
than the ball."), to Busch Gardens, to Disney World. Says Chan
Wongluekiet, "It's important we don't get into that trap where
it's like a job every day."

Sometimes the kids and the Leadbetter staff sound like
conspirators against a common enemy--parents. "The parents are
pushy," Leadbetter concedes. "The kids want to be kids, but the
parents say, 'We're paying all this money, we want to see
results.'" Some parents panic when their darling slips in the
rankings; others get alarmed when a swing change temporarily
turns their Tiger into a 15 handicapper.

The kids can be tough on themselves. Even though O'Brien's
handicap was 12 less than two years ago, he has spent much of his
time battling doubts. "I had all these expectations," he says,
"but the way you improve here is, you get worse before you get
better. I started shooting upper 80s, really struggling. It
wasn't until I lowered my expectations that I improved."

Expectations of a different kind soured the Academy experience
for Sean O'Hair. His dad didn't just expect improvement; Marc
O'Hair also expected Leadbetter himself to coach his son. The
fact is, hurricanes visit the Bradenton facility as often as
Leadbetter does, and the staff doesn't like a parent meddling
with their teaching approach. "Maybe we lose a customer now and
then," says Gilchrist, "but the kids have to learn that there's
more to life than hitting a ball from A to B and making a lot of
money."

It's true. There's also fame. The Wongluekiet twins won 10
top-drawer junior events in '99 and finished second in four. They
expect to join the LPGA tour when they turn 18. Virada
Nirapathpongporn, 17 and the nation's second-ranked junior girl,
is a household name in Thailand. As for Ty Tryon, a recent
appearance in Golf Plus Faces (Sept. 6, 1999) merely whetted his
appetite. Ty says, "I want to win the Grand Slam, to be awesome."

Awesome is Tryon's favorite word, that and amazing. He says the
Wongluekiet twins, who routinely shoot subpar rounds and drive
the ball 250 yards, are "amazing. They're like machines. They hit
every shot." He says last year's Bradenton Academy boys golf team
was both amazing and awesome--so good, with AJGA All-Americas
Tryon and Wongluekiet on it, that they won the Florida high
school championship without ever attending a team practice. Ask
Ty about the girls' team and he replies, "Beyond awesome." In '98
the girls, led by sixth-graders Aree and Naree, won the state
high school title by an amazing, awesome 82 strokes.

Even untypical kids have typical days. Tryon, who hails from
Orlando, lives on the IMG grounds in Building A, just outside the
canopied entrance to the Academy offices. He shares a
second-floor apartment with five other golfers--three Americans, a
Korean and a boy from Bombay, India. The furnishings are
unattractive, even by dorm-room standards (10 metal lockers
decorate one wall), but the living room has an entertainment
center with a TV and VCR. There is also an AstroTurf putting
strip with an automatic ball return.

On a recent school morning, a wet-haired Ty was dressed before
dawn and seated in front of his Gateway computer, pawing through
an algebra book. Roommate Craig Trahan, a tall, bespectacled kid
with a cackling laugh, stuck his head in at intervals to announce
the time, while suitemate Alex Hansberger, a 15-year-old from
Chicago, sat on the floor in front of the TV, playing computer
golf.

At 7:15 the boys hustled to the cafeteria, where Academy kids
grab breakfast. Ten minutes later, they sprinted to a school bus,
and at 7:40 they were delivered to the Bradenton Academy. Ty's
homeroom teacher gave the traditional warning about gum chewing
as well as a more contemporary prohibition: No tongue rings.

Ty sped through his morning classes. He was back at IMG for lunch
and on the bus again by 2. On this afternoon, his group, coached
by Yarwood, would play nine holes at Sara Bay, a Donald Ross
layout with undulating greens reminiscent of Pinehurst No. 2.
Yarwood emphasized that his kids would not focus on scoring but
on their swings and course management. "They've got great
ability," he said, "but we need to let them develop naturally.
They have to be free to shoot 80."

In one of the two foursomes, Naree Wongluekiet showed little
resemblance to the kid who had recently humbled girls four years
older while finishing second to her sister in the PGA Junior
Championship. She bladed a chip over a green and almost did it
again from the opposite fringe. On a par-3, her perfectly struck
seven-iron dropped 10 yards short of the green. "I thought that
was way over!" she said with a smile.

"She has new contact lenses," said an untroubled Yarwood. "Can't
see a thing."

An hour later the kids piled back on the bus with their golf
bags. The rest of the day would race by: fitness training in the
IPI Dome at 5:30; dinner in the cafeteria at 7; study hall at
7:30, followed by "activities"--swimming, table tennis, E-mail
sessions on the computers. "They're supposed to be in bed by ten
o'clock," says Gilchrist.

The Academy provides scholarships to a few students, but the
meter is running for the rest. "We don't want only rich kids to
come here," says Leadbetter, "but there's certainly a class
factor. It's expensive to play golf, especially in the States."

Other countries do it differently. In Sweden kids can join a golf
club for as little as $22 a year, and the top players get
training and financial support from the Swedish Golf Union. The
Australian Sports Institute runs a similar quasipublic program.
The Spanish Golf Union subsidized Sergio Garcia on his way to
stardom. But the U.S. Golf Association does not provide
development subsidies, and there is no national junior team. That
leaves junior coaching to the private sector--or, as Leadbetter
sees it, to Leadbetter. "Golf was really the last pro sport where
people found their own way to the top," he says. "Now it's
becoming more structured."

The famous teacher, though, does not subscribe to the total
immersion policy of Marc O'Hair and Earl Woods. Two of
Leadbetter's children--James, 5, and Hally, 7--are still happily
"playing" golf. But Andy Leadbetter, 15, is a two handicap and
starting to take the game seriously. A few months ago he told his
dad he wanted to leave home and enroll at the Leadbetter Academy.
Leadbetter, with a lump in his throat, said he'd think about it.

"We're looking at sending him," Leadbetter says. "He'll probably
be old enough next year. I just want to make sure that he's
responsible, that he's ready to fend for himself." He hesitated.
"To be honest, you don't have your kids forever. You get a little
bit selfish. You don't want to see your kids go."

What's a father to do?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN VAN HOOK LEADMASTER Leadbetter's 90 students rarely enjoy this sort of attention from the boss. FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN VAN HOOK DAILY GRIND Leadbetter students are bused to private school for morning classes and then spend afternoons practicing and playing golf. The Wongluekiets (from left: Naree, Chan and Aree) study at home in the evenings.
"The kids want to be kids," says Leadbetter. "The parents say,
'We're paying all this money, we want to see results.'"