Dragon mother

My China-born wife, Susan, dreamt that one day our son Max would become the Number 1 golf player in the world; in other words, rich and famous. When Susan came across a book, In Every Kid There Lurks a Tiger (Hyperion, 2002) by Rudy Duran, the first professional golfer who coached Tiger Woods from age six to ten, her mind was made up: we would move from Sydney to Southern California where Rudy would coach Max, who would then follow in Tiger Woods’ footsteps. And so we did, except the imagined deal with golf-guru Duran did not work out. Instead, we enrolled Max in the children’s program at Colina Park Golf Course in San Diego, home of the famous Callaway Junior Golf World Championship, an annual event that has been played for over sixty years. It is the most important tournament of its kind. When we left Sydney, Max was six years old; he had been playing golf for just under a year.

It is of course well known that the dragon, in Chinese mythology, is an all-powerful and benevolent creature.

IT IS JUNE 2013, San Diego, California – the last few weeks before the Callaway Junior World Championship. Max has been preparing by playing one tournament after another. Each time, the outcome has been much the same: he hits a few remarkable shots, lands a few wayward ones in rough territory or behind some trees, and finally gives a hole away with a careless putt. Too many double bogeys, too few pars, not enough birdies. He usually manages a final score of between eight and fourteen over par: not enough to land him among the top players.

Dragon Mum finally admits defeat a week before the Callaway: she realises that she will not see Max’s name on the Callaway Leader Board. The last straw for her is Max’s performance at the San Diego Junior Masters tournament, held on the Thursday and Friday before the World Championship. It’s at Colina Park, where the world championship will also be played – a kind of warm-up event for the Callaway. It’s a pretty but difficult par-three course, designed especially for younger players, on a hilly site with alternating uphill and downhill fairways. Some of the greens are very tricky, fast and undulating with multiple breaks and downhill putts; there is also a little lake at hole number seventeen (well, pond is more like it) which has even got a cascading waterfall.

In theory, Max should have a good chance to win here, or at least come close. He has the skills, he knows the course, he has practised here for nearly half a year. If anything, he should have a kind of home advantage. He has shot two holes-in-one at Colina Park (holes one and seven), and he has birdied all of the holes here at one time or the other. His problem is he does not focus; he continually plays in a rush; he gets distracted too easily. Some of the tees are located right next to each other, and he’s usually more interested in what’s going on at the other tee than preparing for the next tee shot of his own. And it’s quite clear by now that he hasn’t quite got the passion to win. Once he’s finished his round, he will be immediately running and mucking and jumping around, or playing chase with the other kids. He is only six years old. But so are his competitors.

At the Junior Masters, Max scores sixteen over par. Dragon Mum is thoroughly depressed; she knows that her vision for her son has not come to pass. There is little chance that Max will miraculously improve his game to do better at Callaway. He is good but no Tiger Woods, as super coach-guru Rudy Duran had suggested when he played with Max at our meeting at Scottsdale, Arizona, half a year ago. I tell Susan she should not feel that way. Our son is doing all right. He has made a lot of progress. Golf is a game for life. Max has reached a level of play at his age where he can be confident of being a competent social golfer or even competitive club player for the rest of his life. That’s no mean achievement.

But Dragon Mum is nothing if not resilient. The next day she tells anybody who wants to listen that kids’ golf is all about having fun and making friends, that the score doesn’t matter, that the six-year-old kids are really too young to play eighteen-hole tournaments anyway, that learning to play golf well is a long shot, and so on. She even admits that we (she generously includes me in her public soul-searching) have made a mistake by pushing Max too far too early, that we’ll be sure to take it easy from now on, the main thing is that he’ll be enjoying his game. Any such mini-lecture ends with a reference, ironically, to Rudy Duran and his mantra: the kids have to ‘own’ their game.

DESPITE HER NEW-FOUND conviction that the kids have to own their game, Dragon Mum cannot help but tell Max what to do. Whenever she’s on the course with him, she is talking, lecturing, repeating the obvious things ad infinitum and ad nauseam, in English as well as in Mandarin, a waterfall of unhelpful advice: ‘Routine! Behind the ball! Don’t play into the bunker!’ After each round she promises to be quiet the next time, but she can’t help it. We have endlessly unproductive arguments, and I tell Susan that Max has two worst enemies in golf: himself, and his mum.

Eventually, Max simply sticks his fingers in his ears in protest and won’t listen anymore. He resolutely refuses to go on the course with Dragon Mum as caddie, so the job of caddying falls to me, not that I’m particularly keen on it. I know Max’s golf, and I know what his problems are, but he hardly ever pays attention to what I tell him, or anyone else for that matter. He is stubborn, to say the least. But the two of us get along quite well on the course. I might suggest something to him, and if he does the opposite, I let it be. Sometimes he is right, of course, as when I suggest a certain club and he prefers another, and if he does a good shot he says, triumphantly, ‘See? I told ya!’ And he is more convinced than ever that he is the one in charge of his game.

But for Dragon Mum the matter is not quite settled, neither between her and Max, nor her and myself. It’s personal, of course: she simply finds it impossible to give up playing the Great Golfing Guru Mum. Her last resort is a belief that a professional caddie will do a better job than either of us and help Max to improve on his score. So she goes around looking for one, and on the Saturday afternoon before the Callaway she hires Xavier, a student from San Diego State University who has grown up playing golf at Colina Park. I’m furious, not only because of the manipulative way she goes about it, but because I doubt whether a caddie who doesn’t know Max at all and has never see him play will help. Again, an unproductive argument: Dragon Mum has made the deal ($50 a round for Xavier) and it’s fait accompli. For a moment, I feel like walking out on the whole thing, but of course I can’t leave Max alone.

Anyway, our son sees the whole business strictly through his own eyes, and he doesn’t mind at all. On the contrary: Xavier is ‘cool’, and Max is keen to play with him. Xavier is a quiet, well-spoken, likeable young man of Mexican descent, a student at a local university and one of the players at Colina Park who has been through the ‘First Tee’ program. They all play golf very well and know the course inside out, and Max, like all the kids his age, looks up to them in awe. The evening before the tournament, the two of them go on the course and Max plays half-a-dozen holes, with Xavier caddying. When they come back, Max is quite excited and clearly on a high. He has played well, and Xavier has taught him a new shot (it’s a trick shot Max calls a hop-hop shot: a short chip onto the green where the ball bounces twice, rather than once, and then – or that’s the general idea – slowly rolls into the hole).

This is not good, I say to myself, experimenting with a new shot just before the important tournament? But I keep quiet. I speak to Xavier in private and try to impress on him what is important: slowing Max down, making him concentrate and focus, the basics. Xavier nods. ‘No problem,’ he says, ‘Max will do very well.’

IT IS 14 July 2013, the opening ceremony of the Callaway Junior Golf World Championship in California, and exactly ninety-nine flags are fluttering in the light ocean breeze around the two putting greens in front of the pro-shop of Torrey Pines Golf Course. The flags represent fifty-six different countries, forty-two states of the US, and one huge Stars and Stripes that towers over all the others. Most of the 1,225 young golf players between the ages of five and seventeen who have qualified for this tournament from around the world are running around in a beehive of activity, chatting excitedly, exchanging small gifts representative of their country, lining up for the putting competition (an eighteen-hole mini-golf course set up on the putting green with pine cones and twigs as hazards), or seriously practicing their putting skills. Meanwhile, the adults are elbowing their way through the crowded pro-shop, looking for the latest fashion items in designer golf apparel and overpriced souvenirs with the tournament logo.

We meet up with friends from Sydney: dad Ken and son Jeffrey, aged eight; and dad Patrick and daughter Sophie, aged ten. They are staying at another resort and golf course where they are playing with their respective age groups. Max, Jeffrey and Sophie used to play together at tournaments in Sydney, and there is great excitement about the reunion six months after we left for California. Everybody is very happy.

Next to the clubhouse, a raised platform has been constructed in front of a huge poster announcing CALLAWAY JUNIOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 2013. To the left of the lectern, there is seating for the official guests who will attend the opening ceremony, and in front of the podium a few hundred white plastic chairs have been placed for the parents and visitors who are eagerly awaiting the highlight of the opening show: the parade of flags. The kids line up behind their respective national colours and a sign announcing the name of the country. There’s piped-in elevator music, and off they march, around the clubhouse and in front of the officials on the rostrum on one side and the assembled parents and spectators on the other. As the tournament chairperson announces the names of the countries, there is enthusiastic applause, and the children’s march snakes around the back of the spectator area to take up position behind the adults. Finally, the Stars and Stripes arrive and everybody stands for the US national anthem.

It’s all so cute, in an all-American sort of way: the California sun is sparkling, the blue ocean is glistening beyond the glorious Torrey Pines fairways, the child golfers are dressed up like mini-pros in their brand-new designer gear. The parade is a little bit like the athletes’ entrance at the Olympic Games, something the organisers are proud to point out (‘mini-Olympics’), but there is a slight difference underlined by the arranged staging: at the Olympics, the athletes are in the middle of the stadium, at the centre of everybody’s attention; here the players are paraded around in front of the adults and then to the back of the spectators’ area, behind the adults, where the kids are supposed to line up and listen. Of course, they don’t; they soon lose interest in the proceedings, and while the various speakers drone on about the illustrious predecessors of today’s competitors, the kids chase each other across the lush lawn in front of the first tee of Torrey Pines South Course.

The staging of the ceremony makes it clear what this tournament is all about: the parents, the organisers, the sponsors. Not one of the official speakers addresses the children, the talk is all about thanking the parents, the officials of San Diego county and the Callaway organisation, and about evoking the history of the tournament with its famous winners: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Chinese teenager Guan Tianlang, who won in 2012 and is presently in San Diego for training, should have been the star participant: he had played at the Augusta Masters earlier this year, the youngest player ever. But he was only invited to make a cameo appearance for the San Diego press the previous day. The reason: he has refused to play in this year’s Callaway, so he no longer rates a mention. At age fourteen, he would be eligible to compete again, but he obviously does not want to play with the kids anymore. And why would he? After making the cut for the Masters, he is now preparing to play in the Canadian Open against the adult pros. Instead, all the media attention is on Allan Kournikova, little brother of famous Russian tennis nymphet Anna, and on an unknown fifteen year old from South Africa, Jovan Rebula, who turns out to be the nephew of Ernie Els and is being coached by Ernie Els’ father. The organisers hope that history will repeat itself, and that the youngster from South Africa will do battle against some promising local boy, as Uncle Ernie did when he won the tournament in the thirteen-to-fourteen division against a San Diegan prodigy, Phil Mickelson. That was thirty years ago.

Coincidentally, as I learnt later, during the tournament’s sixty-years history, none of the winners in the youngest age group in which Max is competing ever made a name for him or herself in professional golf.

There may be a lesson there.

SO, THIS IS it, 16–18 July, the main event, the one we came here for, the one Max has been practising for since February. After the opening ceremony at Torrey Pines, there is two days of warm-up and practice for the competitors to get to know the layout of their respective courses, followed by three days of competition, three times eighteen holes. Max plays in the youngest age group against fifty-five others from around the world. It will be an exhausting week, especially with the present heat wave in Southern California, with temperatures over 30 degrees.

On Monday, Max plays his practice round with Xavier and, unsurprisingly, he does not do better than usual: his score is sixty-nine, fifteen over par. It’s clear that Xavier couldn’t manage Max’s play better than either of his parents. On the eighth hole – one of the more difficult holes at Colina Park – the tee shot ends up just an inch short of the green, and only some six feet from the flag. It should be an easy two-putt for par, a birdie is within reach. Instead, Max decides to try his new hop-hop chip shot and misses badly. The ball shoots across the green into the rough, he has to chip it back and ends up three-putting for a triple bogey. Later, Xavier explains to me that he had told Max to use his putter, but Max had stubbornly refused. Never mind, I say, he has to own the game.

Dragon Mum is not impressed, and without ceremony Xavier is paid off and fired. ‘Sorry,’ she tells him, ‘it was an experiment; it didn’t work.’ To Dragon Mum, it’s the American way. Xavier didn’t deliver the goods. He is clearly disappointed, but does not seem overly surprised. The procedure is not unusual, it appears: local caddies are only on stand-by, and they are used to erratic parents around here. The older kids at Colina Park are well trained in the etiquette of the gentleman’s game. Like Xavier, they are unfailingly cheerful and polite. Of course, Xavier had expected to be employed for four days’ caddying, and to earn a substantial tip afterwards. But he does not show any anger or frustration. He smiles, wishes Max well and calmly says goodbye. I feel terrible, however, and I talk to Todd Smith, the director of golf at Colina Park, and apologise. No worries, he tells me, it’s okay; he’ll get Xavier another job. Xavier ends up driving the club’s VIP van for the duration of the tournament, probably for better money.

So, the job of caddying comes back to me. I find it hard to show any enthusiasm, but Max promises to listen this time, and he and I solemnly agree to have three great rounds of golf. Max will take his time, he will focus and not muck around. Promised! Word of honour!

But the question of who will caddie Max takes yet another turn. On Tuesday morning, while Max and I are preparing for the first round on the practice green, Dragon Mom runs into Todd Smith in the clubhouse, and he asks whether she needs a caddie. It turns out that Shaun, another one of the ‘cool’ senior boys at Colina Park, had lined up a job to caddie for one of the contestants from Thailand, only to be unceremoniously sacked – just like Xavier – the night before. Apparently, one of the Thai pros accompanying the team had decided to act as caddie himself.

Shaun is one of the champions at Colina Park; he has played here for over ten years, and he has a record of twenty-six holes-in-one. Wow! When Max hears that there is another ‘cool caddie’ who wants to play with him, he is happy to ditch his dad. I’m beyond caring at this point, and I just repeat to Shaun that he should try to make Max slow down and focus. Don’t worry, Shaun tells me, he knows his job, he knows the greens (twenty-six holes-in-one!), Max will do very well.

Predictably, he doesn’t: his score is seventeen over on the first day, fourteen on the second. By that time, Dragon Mum is resigned to her fate. We invite Shaun for lunch after the second round on Wednesday, and he suggests his favourite Vietnamese restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard. We have an excellent pho and an animated conversation. Max and I show Shaun how to prepare the paper wrappers of (soft-drink) straws to shoot darts out of the straw that becomes a blowgun, Amazon Indian-style (rip off one end of the paper, twist the other one into a sharp point, and blow hard). Whereupon Shaun shows us what else you can do with the little white wrappers: tear off both ends, push the paper together as tightly as you can over the straw, then pull it off the straw and lay the crumpled, compressed piece of soft white paper on the table, drop a drop of water (or coke or whatever soft drink at hand) on one end, and – voilá – they wriggle like little worms. It’s a very funny trick, and Max and I are quite impressed.

Shaun tells us about his immigrant background (his parents came as refugees, father is unemployed, mother working long hours to feed the family). After a while, Susan and I look at each other. We both find Shaun is trying remarkably hard to work on our social conscience, while at the same time going on about how inspirational golf and Colina Park have been in his career up-to-date: as prospective high school graduate, devoted child and model patriotic citizen.

We drop Shaun back at Colina Park, and while we drive home to our flat, he sends an SMS to Susan’s mobile phone: he demands more money for the last round. That was a mistake, because Dragon Mum only needed an occasion to fire him. To her, the matter is simple, again: Shaun has failed to deliver. Max has played at his usual level, if not below. Dragon Mum is not impressed by Shaun’s soapy hard-luck story of childhood deprivation and boot-camp determination to succeed. This is America: it’s the result that counts, dummy! Max is by now used to last-minute change of caddies. He doesn’t mind, he says. Anyway, he liked Xavier better than Shaun.

SO I AGAIN have the dubious privilege to caddie for Max. It’s the final round, and he begins nervously, but I let him play and he gradually relaxes. He has promised to listen to what I say (‘slow down!’), but he still plays too rushed – too little focus, not enough concentration. The shot off the first tee goes wild and lands next to the adjoining fairway, some eighty feet from the green. But Max recoups with a brilliant chip that rolls to within four inches of the cup, and he manages a par. Great recovery! He’s beaming, and we high-five. Next up are two bogeys followed by two pars, but then he misses some easy putts. There’s a quadruple bogey on hole six (ouch!) and a double bogey on seven. Too rushed, again! Once more, he manages to relax and to finish the first nine with a par. Score for the front nine: nine over.

In our group is a little boy from Mexico, six years old like Max, who plays very well on the first six holes, but then his play falls apart and he starts crying, softly but uncontrollably, while his father-caddie is swearing and muttering under his breath, gesticulating in desperation. On the back nine, Max is more consistent. He lands a birdie on the twelfth, has four pars and only two double bogeys. He scores thirty-two on the back nine, five over par, and finishes first in his group. Final score for the last round: fourteen over par. The kids shake hands, compare and sign their score cards, and while the Mexican boy is still crying Max jumps around, punching his fist in the air, acting as if he has won the tournament. He is happy play-acting, fantasising.

Max’s final score for three rounds is forty-five over, fifteen on average, pretty much his normal score. This lands him in twenty-fourth place out of the forty-two players who finish the tournament. The winner is one of the boys from Thailand who comes in at two over par in the last round, and runner-up is a Canadian boy of Chinese descent whose final score is five over par. During the award ceremony, tears begin to roll down the Canadian boy’s cheeks, but he’s not crying because he’s a winner. He’s crying, uncontrollably, because he came in second, meaning he’s a loser, and he’s devastated. His supporters try to cheer him up with shouts of ‘Smile!’, to no avail. He’s standing there with a medal around his neck, a trophy in his hands, crying and crying.

Our friends from Sydney have done a little better than Max. Jeffrey has taken an equal eighteenth place against a much tougher opposition in the age group eight-to-nine. He is only a few days away from his birthday, and if the tournament had started a week later he would have had to play in the next group, which would have been much tougher still. Jeff’s dad Ken is not exactly happy. He had hoped for a better result, but he’s philosophical: it’s the first major tournament for his son; it was an expensive exercise but a great experience; it’s good to find out about playing in an international competition; they’ll go back to Sydney with even greater determination to train harder and to win, eventually. Only Sophie has done very well: she has taken fifth place in her group, a great result. She and daddy Patrick are over the moon: with this ranking, Sophie will be invited to play in every tournament around the world. And Patrick can afford it: he works for an airline company, as IT manager, and they can fly for next to nothing anywhere they like.

We had arranged to celebrate at the wood-fired pizzeria downstairs at our place in La Jolla, but Ken does not find the way and gets lost, so the mobile phones go into action to decide on Plan B: we drive up to a shopping plaza near Jeffrey’s course in San Marcos and find a Chinese restaurant that doubles as a sushi bar-cum-pizzeria. Everybody is happy now, the kids are having a great time chasing each other and playing hide-and-seek behind pillars and under the tables in the cavernous, almost empty restaurant, and the adults are shouting rounds of beer and swapping tales of the great tournaments and plans for the future.

We say goodbye, with no clear idea of when we’ll see each other again. On the way back, Max is soon sound asleep on the back seat of the car. Susan and I don’t say much, we’re both very tired; it has been a long, exhausting day. I try not to fall asleep at the wheel.

Extracted from my The Dragon Mother’s Dream: A Year at La Jolla. The Dragon Mum in the story is modelled on my China-born wife, Susan, who is a kind of ‘Chinese Tiger Mum’, except the Mandarin name of our son Max is Xiaolong, meaning ‘Little Dragon’, hence ‘Dragon Mother’. 

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