Robert Howard is a doting father, a cheerleader kind of dad. He records for posterity his two daughters’ every achievement, every nuance of their lives, as he has done since they were 3 and 4, on film, on paper, on his computer. He punctuates each achievement, no matter how mundane, with exhortations: “Congratulations, Howard sisters! Excellent work, girls! Great job, girls!” Robert is proud of his daughters, but one overwhelming worry shadows his pride: he is waiting anxiously for them to grow. Robert is 6-foot-4. His wife, Gianna, however, is 5-foot-5. His daughters, Ginger, 13, and Robbi, 12, are not much over 5 feet. An average height for girls their age, but the Howard sisters are not average girls.
The sisters have their own Web site, gingerandrobbi.com, where fans can find everything they might want to know about them: their birth dates, their height, their interests (art, reading, educational computer games), their favorite sports equipment (Nike, Titleist, Callaway), their television appearances (“The Morning Show,” “The George Michael Sports Machine,” Comcast’s “SportsNet,” “Amazing Kids: Unbelievable Talents”). There are also, of course, the various photos of them smiling at a camera while holding up a trophy or swinging a golf club taller than they are. They differ mostly in the number of their trophies (83 for Ginger, 62 for Robbi); their amateur rankings for girls under 18 (No. 101 for Ginger, No. 288 for Robbi); the fact that Ginger plays right-handed and Robbi left-handed; and the events they have won. ESPN.com called Ginger “one of the best child golfers in the world,” and their coach at the David Leadbetter school at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., says that only a few golfers their age in the world are as talented as the Howard sisters.
Their father presents them as the Venus and Serena Williams of golf. In fact, he is so assured of their future greatness (he calls the process of getting there “the Journey”) that he says: “I’ll make their dreams come true. Lately, I’ve had my wife step up to do interviews and stuff to show that she’s part of the Journey, so to speak.” Gianna, for her part, says: “Their talent is so tremendous; we don’t take it lightly. My daughters have big dreams that they will become famous. Ginger loves to sing and dance. She might want to be an actress. They can use golf to open doors for other things they want to do, like Venus and Serena.”
Ginger sums up the Journey more succinctly. “We’re going to be superstars and everyone is going to notice,” she says. While Robert waits for the world to notice his daughters — their easygoing personalities, their beauty, their golf games — he promotes them incessantly. He does so even in their presence, talking about them as if they were not there. Ginger just smiles. Robbi rolls her eyes.
What the Howard sisters have in common with the Williams sisters is that both sets of siblings play country-club sports where professional success has been rare for African-Americans. What they don’t have in common is that Venus and Serena were always big girls, bigger and stronger than most girls their age. They became stars when their tennis proficiency caught up to their size and strength. The Howard sisters have to hope their size and strength catch up to their golf proficiency.
Robert is positive that his daughters will grow into their talent. He points to their shoe size — 9 1/2 for Ginger, 10 for Robbi — as proof. “I’m tall,” he says. “Ginger and Robbi have my genes. I mean, I’m taller than Scott!” He is referring to Scott Thompson, the coach, father and caddie of Alexis Thompson, the 13-year-old girl from South Florida who last year became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Alexis is 5-foot-8, a big-boned, big-shouldered girl with long legs. Her size and strength help her drive the ball 260 yards. The Howard sisters hit 220- and 230-yard drives. When they play with older girls and women, they look like “petite little girls,” says Jay Goble, their coach at Leadbetter. “Sometimes they act like little kids too.” Alexis is often taller than her adult playing partners. One pro in her 20s says, “I would have had no idea Alexis was 13 if I hadn’t been told.” Ginger has had the opposite experience. She says that her older opponents “think I’m just a little kid
until I show them how good I am.”
At the end of the first week in January, the Howards left their gated community in Bradenton at 6 a.m., stopped by McDonald’s for breakfast, then began a four-hour trip across the state to Jacksonville for a golf tournament. While Ginger and Robbi and their 5-year-old brother Robert Jr., or R. J., sat in the back seat of the family’s Expedition and watched cartoons on a small overhead TV, Robert talked about their trip with enthusiasm: the exclusive golf club they were going to, T.P.C. at Sawgrass, where Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino once played and where the sisters had an 11:33 tee time. The two-day event they would play in, which was part of the Future Collegians World Tour for girls up to the age of 18 and which started tomorrow. The restaurant they would eat at that night, Barbara Jean’s, his favorite in the Jacksonville area. The hotel they would stay in, all five in one room.
By noon, Robert was caddying for Ginger and Robbi, a baggy blue satin sweatsuit over his long johns. A third girl practiced with them, tall and slim and with her own hired caddie. Gianna drove alongside the fairways, bundled up in the golf cart with R. J. on her lap. Ginger and Robbi listened attentively whenever their father gave them advice, standing in that knock-kneed, coltish way of girls not yet fully grown. When one hit a good shot, he couldn’t contain himself: “I love it, baby!” When one hit a bad shot: “Don’t worry, baby, it was the wind.”
Ginger played a neat, precise, mistake-free game, but without flair. Her drives were short, but landed right in the middle of the fairway. She didn’t miss putts she was supposed to make. Robbi had a big, powerful game that was erratic. She drove one shot farther than either Ginger or the tall girl had, but into the rough, behind a tree. Her shoulders slumped. “Look at that drive!” Robert said. “Don’t worry. It’ll come.”
Many of the teenagers who make it into the U.S. Women’s Open began playing golf as young as 5, like the Howard sisters, because it’s the perfect sport for very young girls. They often take instruction better than young boys: boys want to do it their way, but girls want to do it right. Golf is a stationary sport of technique that can be learned, rather than a more instinctive physical sport like basketball. Most sports benefit from speed, strength and dexterity, which only peak with a mature body. But golf requires first and foremost a diligence to form.
Goble says the Howard sisters are “more technically proficient” than any young golfers their age that he has ever seen. “They don’t have a real weakness,” he adds. “I just monitor their technique until they grow into their bodies. But their real strength is their competitiveness. Ginger is always charged up. And Robbi is even more fiery.”
One pro says of girl golfers: “The beauty of being 12 is you don’t know fear, so what do you have to lose? These young girls play golf seven days a week, seven hours a day. These girls are home-schooled. Golf is their life.” But Diane Lang, who is 53 and a former senior amateur champion, acknowledges the risk that comes with that focus. “These girls get younger and younger every year,” she says. “In my day, I was lucky to have an instructor. These girls have trainers, psychologists, short-game coaches, long-game coaches. They lift weights, get muscles and hit the ball farther. They’re fearless. But if they don’t make it, what do they have to fall back on?”
Of course, if they do make it, they can earn more money at an earlier age than athletes in just about any other sport. By her midteens, Michelle Wie, for example, had already secured endorsement deals for millions of dollars and regularly received appearance bonus money to play in men’s events — before she ever won a significant tournament. And she still hasn’t won one; in fact, golf fans wonder if money hasn’t destroyed her competitive drive.
During the practice round at Sawgrass, the tall girl showed neither Ginger’s precision nor Robbi’s power. She played dejectedly, walking to her ball with a disheartened slouch. Afterward, her father told me: “It was intimidating. I’ve heard of them before. They were players.” He shook his head. The tall girl and her father were from Minnesota, where she was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school and one of the top amateur golfers in her state. “The older sister is the most consistent girl golfer I ever saw,” the father continued. “And she didn’t even have her game face on today. Both the girls are very sweet. They complimented my daughter on her good shots.” Of their father, he said: “He’s certainly not an Earl Woods golf father. I mean, he’s not a slave driver. But you can tell. They all have a purpose.”
I first MET the Howards late last summer at their home, a Mediterranean-style house in the gated golf community of Heritage Harbor. The houses were all so similar that even on my third visit, I still drove past it before recognizing their S.U.V. in the driveway. Robert likes the safety of this community: his daughters never have to pass through the guarded gates that keep the world out. “I want to keep my girls confined,” he says, “so this thing won’t blow up.” He monitors his girls’ phone calls. When Robbi received an obscene call one night that woke her up, Robert grabbed the phone and snapped, “Who’s this? Who’s this?"
On my first visit, Gianna opened the door and the two girls came running down the stairs, giggling. They stood in the family room off the kitchen, as if at attention. Ginger had a big, wide-eyed, eager-to-please grin on her face. Robbi gave me a little sly, sideways smile. Ginger is the gregarious one, Robert says; Robbi is the shy one. Ginger has what Goble describes as “a phenomenal short game” of chip shots and putts. “She’s consistent,” he says. “She grinds out pars that could be disastrous for other girls. Robbi has the big, explosive game. She can get hot and either have a great round or blow the whole thing.”
The girls took me to see their rooms, with their black long-haired dachshund, Putter, hopping up the stairs after us. Ginger had a “Girls Rule” sign on her wall and a few of her golf trophies on a shelf. “The rest are in the garage,” she said. It seemed like a typical girl’s room, all bright pastel colors and stuffed animals. Robbi’s room was similar, only more spare. We went back downstairs and sat in the family room. Gianna was in the kitchen while I chatted with her daughters.
Their favorite golfer is Tiger Woods. “Because he knows how to finish,” Ginger said. She wants to be a famous golfer, too, she said. Giggling, she leaned forward, her face in her hands, and added, “And then a star on the Disney Channel.”
Robbi said, “I want to be a veterinarian.”
I asked Ginger who her best friend was. She spent a long moment, thinking. Finally, her face brightened, and she said: “Robbi! Because she’s perfect. She always tells me the truth. She’s really honest. When I dance for her, she’ll say, ‘That wasn’t very good.’ ”
Robbi said: “I’m her audience. She makes me laugh.”
School for the sisters is the kitchen table where their mother teaches them. Home-schooling seems to be a recent trend for young female golfers. It’s a way for their parents to make sure they have enough time for golf. A round takes up to five hours to play, so kids who go to school and get out of class at, say, 3 p.m. don’t have enough time to practice and do their homework.
“I get up at 6:30 in the morning,” Ginger said. “I make my bed, do the dishes, walk Putter; then we do schoolwork with my mom at 8 o’clock until noon. I like being home-schooled because my mom understands us.” She put her hands over her face and giggled. “Robbi is a better student than me.”
Robbi ran through their schedule. “In the afternoon we go to IMG to practice,” she said. After that, it’s the International Performance Institute, which is part of IMG, by 5:30. “We lift weights, run, do core body work with a medicine ball and stretch until 6:30. Then we go home to watch TV. Mostly the Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.” I mentioned a hit TV show for older viewers. The two girls looked at me as if confused. Gianna called out, “They don’t know what that is.”
I asked them if they missed having friends. “Oh, we have friends,” Ginger said. “We text-message them all the time.” Their friends are mostly other young girl golfers from Korea, Japan and Europe and train at IMG. I asked if they would rather be famous celebrities like Michelle Wie or great golfers like Morgan Pressel, who qualified for the women’s Open when she was 13 a few years ago. Robbi asked, “Can we be both?” I said no. Robbi thought long and hard. Then she said, “A great golfer.”
Just then Robert arrived home. His daughters rushed to hug him. Robert, 43, is a big, handsome man with a pencil-thin moustache and a fondness for gold jewelry. Robert says Ginger has his outgoing, striving personality and is “an extrovert like me, very focused.” Both he and Ginger say Robbi is more like Gianna in her innately comforting personality. Robert is of Irish, Native American, African-American and West Indian ancestry. Gianna’s is Russian, French-Canadian, Native American and African-American. Gianna describes their children as “multicultural.”
Robert sat down on a sofa in the living room and talked about his life while his son stared at me with big brown eyes. Robert was born into a lower-middle-class family in Philadelphia. “Golf didn’t come up much in my neck of the woods,” he said, but there was a bus driver named Billy Johnson, who taught tennis to underprivileged kids, which eventually helped Robert get a partial tennis scholarship to Temple University. (Robert still plays tennis today against younger, faster opponents.)
Robert’s father supported him and his five siblings as a steelworker. Gianna, who is 40, came from a similar family of eight siblings. Her father worked as a die cutter and sign painter. Both Robert and Gianna were raised as devout Catholics, just as they are raising their children: on the living-room wall there were two large photographs of Ginger and Robbi in their white First Communion dresses. He made a gesture with his hand to indicate his house and smiled. “When I met my wife, she didn’t expect to live like this.”
Gianna went to Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia and became a nurse. Now she is a night nurse at IMG (she tends to the students in the dorms there). Robert got his business degree from Temple. After they married and had their daughters, they moved to Maryland. By that time Robert was working for PepsiCo and, like a good corporate executive, had taken up golf as a way to advance his career. “You sweat too much in tennis,” he said. One day, Gianna asked him to baby-sit for their daughters. Robbi, the youngest, was 4. On a lark, he took them to a driving range to hit a few balls. The rest is Howard sisters history.
“I had a video camera,” Robert said, “and I filmed the girls so Gianna would know I did something productive with them. A golf pro was there. He came over to me and said, ‘How long have the girls been playing golf?’ I said, ‘Oh, about 15 minutes.’ He said they had nice swings, so we started playing golf for fun, as a family thing — just hitting balls, not playing 18 holes or anything. Then I entered them in their first tournament. We were the last twosome after nine holes. Robbi shot a 32 and Ginger a 33. I had no idea what the other girls’ scores were until I saw that the next-lowest score was 48. That’s when I thought, Let’s see how far this thing will go. So I eventually bought them two sets of $750 golf clubs that we had to cut down.” They also joined the Tantallon Country Club, in Fort Washington, Md., which he described as “not an exclusive country club.”
After a couple of years of successful tournaments, Robert figured that maybe golf would pay for his daughters’ college educations. But the more events his girls played in, the more he realized how good they were and how golf might lead to something even grander than scholarships. By the time Ginger was 8, parents of other girls were pulling their daughters from tournaments that Ginger had entered. So Robert began withholding her name until the last minute; otherwise Ginger would have been competing against only 4 girls instead of 15. Before long, Ginger was “playing up” in age groups, regularly beating girls as old as 14. Soon tournament organizers were asking Robert if he’d let Ginger compete against boys “to level the playing field,” Robert said. “She told me, ‘Daddy, I can beat the boys, too.’ But I didn’t think it was right. So I never let her play against the boys.”
Robert started the girls’ Web site around 2003. It caught the attention of sports-television producers immediately. It was the perfect storyline for TV, the two little sisters who were the Venus and Serena of golf. Robert liked that comparison. “I mentioned it to the pro at Tantallon,” Robert said, “but he didn’t understand the comparison. I explained to him how their father, Richard Williams, pushed the P.R. thing. His daughters hadn’t even competed yet, and he was telling the world they’d be No. 1 and No. 2. It was a pretty bold statement. Obviously he knew something we didn’t.” Robert noticed that by relentlessly hyping his daughters, Williams made them famous before they had ever won an important junior tennis event. In fact, Williams kept his daughters out of important junior events so they couldn’t lose and thereby lessen the hype.
Robert began to formulate his own career plan for his daughters. He noticed that most of their best opponents came from warm climates. So he left what he calls “30 feet of snow in Maryland” and moved the family to Jacksonville, and then to Bradenton, where the girls could be close to specialized instruction at Leadbetter. (Robert now works for Goodwill Industries: “director of transportation,” he says. “I love that title.”) While his daughters competed and he waited for them to grow, Robert studied the career paths of other famous sports prodigies. Eventually, he came up with what he calls the Howard Model, which is based on the experiences of fathers like Richard Williams, B. J. Wie, Scott Thompson and Earl Woods and of Morgan Pressel’s grandfather, Herb Krickstein.
If anyone is Robert’s idol, it is Richard Williams. He spoke of trying to get a few words with Richard as if it were like getting an audience with the pope. “I wish I could talk to him,” he said. “I talked to him only once. I told him I had two daughters who could be the Venus and Serena of golf. I gave him my card, but nothing happened. You know, I applaud what Richard has done, but I’m one of those people who find their own path. I have no one to turn to for advice. This is uncharted water for us. We’re taking it one step at a time.”
The Howard Model is centered on Robert being a cheerleader for his daughters rather than a critic. When Ginger competed recently on a golf course with exceptionally long fairways, she told her father, “Daddy, they’re soooo long!” He comforted her, saying, “Baby, when you figure it out — the wind, the clubs, the green — you’ll be just fine.” Ginger can be easily rattled, sometimes by older playing partners who trash-talk her. “They can be ruthless,” Robert said. “I went to the officials to stop it. Sometimes, during a tournament, Ginger feels pressured if I follow her around. So Gianna always follows her, and I follow Robbi to give her more encouragement.
“I want my daughters to have the qualities of champions,” Robert continued. “Passion. Drive. They must want to do it. And have fun. My philosophy, which my kids understand, is that they play the best of the best so they’ll know who they are. Earn what you get. It’s O.K. to be on TV and all, but you have to prove your worth, too.”
While his daughters are proving their worth, Robert still must keep them in the public eye. That public image is very important to him. “The nature of girls’ golf,” he said, “is that people are concerned with the way the girls’ hair is done, how well they behave, the demeanor they have. I want my girls to remain beautiful on the golf course, to have etiquette, to avoid people stereotyping them against the norm. The public wants them to have etiquette, to be well dressed, not to wear too-tight shorts. The bottom line is: We are Catholics. We’re here for a purpose.”
That “purpose” might be considered a great burden for Robert and Gianna. It can cost them between $25,000 and $40,000 a year per child for the golf clubs, the lessons, the travel to tournaments. “Our sacrifices are an investment,” Robert said. “We live life small. We don’t chase dollars. Yet I don’t have the financial means of other parents. For us to survive this long is a blessing. I just hope I can run into someone who can help these girls out, because their parents are working class.”
Robert has a dream that one day he’ll find a benefactor for his daughters — like the rapper 50 Cent. “He bought part of a flavored-water company,” Robert said, “then it sold to Coke for $4 billion. Now what would it take for my girls to get recognized by him to help them out? It would be a dream come true for someone to say I was doing the right thing with my girls and they want to help us out. But if it’s gonna happen, it’ll happen. God does not put you in a situation you can’t handle. I’m at peace with that.”
Gianna came downstairs to get ready for work. I followed her into the kitchen to talk to her about home-schooling. In order to home-school the girls, the Howards follow a standardized curriculum from an educational company. Gianna sets a goal for her daughters: they must finish four hours of schoolwork each day. If they don’t finish before they play golf, they must finish at night or on the weekend. Every so often, they see a certified teacher who tests the girls. Robert says they are above-average students.
When I asked Gianna if there is any downside to home-schooling, like a diminished social life, she said: “I appreciate that they don’t have much socialization now. What they were getting in school was not that good. Parents give their kids too much freedom today. We don’t allow much freedom. Their friendships are monitored. Our girls are not typical girls. They’re a couple of years behind other girls in terms of clothes, activities, boyfriends. Oh, they have crushes, you know, on those teen TV stars.” She smiled at me. “The ones who live in L.A. I say, that’s good. The farther away, the better. They can put up all the posters they want to in their rooms. But they have no real boyfriends. My girls are their true age. They’re virtuous girls."
It’s easy for the Howards to keep their girls their “true age” at home, but not so easy when they are on the golf course playing alongside girls who talk about “inappropriate things,” as Robert put it. “There are situations when the other girls are talking about boys and sex and using bad language. It blows Ginger’s mind, because she doesn’t know how to handle it. She has tunnel vision on the course, and if you throw anything new at her, it throws her off track. At first we didn’t know why Ginger was playing so badly sometimes, until she came to us and said, ‘Daddy, those girls are using bad language.’ Before a tournament, I used to have to go talk to the girls she was playing with. I told them, I don’t mean any disrespect, but my daughter’s only 12 and I’d prefer you didn’t talk to her on the course.”
Gianna fully embraces their vigilant parenting. “We believe it’s our purpose in life to guide our children,” she said. “We let the kids know that their talent is a blessing from God and it can be taken from them at any moment. That fear is instilled in them so that when they become famous, they’ll use it to help people in some way, like charity work. Not like other celebrities who use their money for drugs and alcohol. We want our daughters to do something in the world that will make a difference.”
I got up to leave. Then I heard the girls giggling upstairs. It dawned on me, suddenly, that it was the second day of the U.S. Women’s Open and the sisters had not been watching it on television. I asked Robert why. “They’re doing their homework or something else they want to do,” he said. “They have other priorities.”
Six months later, in January, I joined the Howard family for dinner at Barbara Jean’s after the sisters’ practice round at Sawgrass. The restaurant was crowded, mostly with families. Children of all ages ran about. We stood off to one side, at the end of the bar, and waited for a table. R. J. wanted a lemonade. When I handed it to him, he gave me a big smile and a high five. I asked Robbi if she and Ginger had gone to the recent Hannah Montana concert in South Florida. Her mouth made a perfect O as she replied, “Nooo!” and tossed a head fake at her mother. Gianna didn’t think the girls were old enough to go to such a concert (nor were the tickets cheap).
After dinner, in the dark parking lot, Gianna and the children said goodbye and climbed into the Expedition. Robert locked the S.U.V. with his remote, then stayed behind with me to answer one last question. I wanted to know why he goes through this: the early-morning drives across the state to save money ($144, plus tax, on this trip); the almost pathological vigilance. It has to be a little exhausting for Robert to keep up the Journey, to cheerlead his daughters, to always try to pump everyone up and keep them happy. When Ginger wanted a piano for Christmas and Robert couldn’t afford one, he spent days haunting music stores until he found a discounted floor model.
“It’s all about family,” Robert said. “It’s fun. The idea is, it’s for them. It’s not about self. My parents worked hard to give me a nice path, college and all, and I want to hand the same thing down to my kids. I love my family.”
Two days later, Robert e-mailed me with the results of the girls’ tournament. “Ginger came from behind by 3 strokes to capture the T.P.C. at Sawgrass event,” he wrote. “She shot a final round 1 over 73. Robbi played well also and shot a final round 81. She finished 13th out of 27 girls. . . . Ginger was so excited, as you would imagine. She now gets her picture taken and it will be hung on the wall of champions at IMG for all to see. What a way to end the weekend.” .
Pat Jordan is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. His latest book, a collection of sportswriting, comes out this month.