The rise of golf's last great champion, Tiger Woods, was the closest American golf has come to Horatio Alger of late.
The rise of the next great champion—not so much.
Woods, the African-American/Thai son of a Vietnam war veteran, emerged from Southern California's municipal courses to dominate the clubbiest of sports
When Peter Uihlein, the top-ranked amateur golfer in the world, debuts at the Masters Thursday, it will mark the latest step in a seemingly pre-ordained journey. Uihlein, 21, is the son of Wally Uihlein, who, since 2000, has been the CEO and chairman of Acushnet Company, the company that owns the biggest brands in golf, including Titleist, FootJoy and Scotty Cameron.
Fifteen years after Woods turned pro, golf in the U.S. is still waiting for the era of diversity and youthful abundance his career was supposed to usher in. Uihlein's emergence as the country's best young player, coupled with the results from the National Golf Foundation's 2010 Participation Report, suggest that at the highest level golf hasn't become more accessible, or more popular with a wider pool of potential talent. It's actually becoming more exclusive.
The number of golfers age 6-17 shrunk to 2.7 million in 2009 from 3.8 million in 2005, a drop of 29%. And just 17% of junior golfers come from families with a household income of less than $50,000. Nearly half come from households with an income above $100,000. (The average household income for a junior golfer is $90,980.)
David Whelan, Uihlein's coach the past five years and the director of the IMG Academy golf program, said to succeed today, an aspiring golfer needs intense, and often expensive, specialized training by age 13. "Unless you have a coach by then guiding you in the fundamentals, showing you how to practice and work on your short game, and taking you through the rough spots, it's going to be pretty tough," he said.
Some of America's up and coming golfers did grow up fairly modestly; including Bubba Watson, who still has never had a golf lesson. But many others benefitted from a direct relationship to the game. Nick Watney was the nephew of a former PGA Tour pro, who coached him at Fresno State. Dustin Johnson's dad was also a teaching professional. Uihlein's college teammate Kevin, is the son of pro Bob Tway.
Wally Uihlein said Peter is the product of two paradigm shifts in golf. The first, like a slew of other top young players today, Peter is a superior athlete who chose to focus on golf instead of another sport—in his case, basketball. Uihlein has a long, 6-foot-3 frame with powerful legs and broad shoulders, which he puts to use on the golf course.
After years of working with Whelan, Uihlein has perfected a powerful, athletic swing that's more Kevin Youkilis than Fred Couples. Uihlein takes a short, three-quarters backswing, and brings his club through the ball on a relatively shallow plane. On his follow through, he looks more like a power-hitter muscling a drive into the right-centerfield gap than a master ball-striker like Vijay Singh.
The second shift, Wally said, is that once his son decided he wanted to be a great golfer, everything else, including the basic structure of the family, took a back seat. Given the arms-race mentality of youth sports today, Wally Uihlein said there is no other choice. "If the pace car is adopting a certain approach, you can sit there and say 'That's unfair' or 'We don't agree with it,' Wally Uihlein said. "Otherwise, you're going into competition with a handicap."
To be fair, golf isn't like soccer. Even if more kids from more diverse backgrounds were playing, it would still be an impossibly difficult game that requires otherworldly hand-eye coordination, endless patience and freakish cool. Peter Uihlein didn't get this far because his dad happens to run a golf company. "Peter's had this game in his blood his whole life," said Mike McGraw, the head golf coach at Oklahoma State. (Uihlein has promised his mother, Tina, he will remain until he earns his degree in economics next year.)
He's also had to deal with an added burden as long as he's been playing golf—constant whispers about nepotism. On the junior golf circuit there were plenty of complaints about his privileged childhood, his high-end coaches and visits to the Titleist Performance Institute, which is considered the game's top training center. "I heard all the snickers, all the rumors," he said. "But I don't play golf to prove anybody wrong."
Still, growing up at the top of the golf world has its perks. As a child, Uihlein's family spent summers vacationing with the family of the renowned instructor Peter Kostis, a close friend of his father's who became Uihlein's first coach. When he was 10, Sergio Garcia visited his Massachusetts home during the Ryder Cup. He has picked up his home line and heard Tiger Woods on the other end.
At 13, when he decided he wanted to pursue a career in golf, he moved to Florida with his mother to attend the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the days began with weight training at 6:30. His classes would end by noon, with practice taking up the rest of the afternoon. Students enjoyed the benefits of a full-time swing coach, strength and conditioning coach and sports psychologist.
Ask him where home is, and he answers, "I was born in Massachusetts. I live in Stillwater. I went to school in Florida."
In 2005 and 2007, Uihlein became the American Junior Golf Association player of the year. He went 4-0 in Walker Cup matches against Europe's best amateurs in 2009, then won the U.S. Amateur Championship last August. The victory, on his 21st birthday, earned him invitations to this year's Masters, and the U.S. and British Opens.
At Oklahoma State this season he's won five events and is averaging 70.67 strokes per round for the top-ranked Cowboys. Last month, he made the cut at the PGA Tour's Transitions Championship.
Last week, Uihlein knocked off British Amateur champion Jin Jeong at the Georgia Cup, an 18-hole duel at the Golf Club of Georgia. Wearing a Titelist cap, Uihlein never lost two consecutive holes.
After Jeong pulled within three holes on No. 14, the 21-year-old Korean hit his approach shot on the par-4 15th hole to within eight feet of the pin. Uihlein responded by hitting his own 100-yard approach to within four feet, then clinched the match on the next hole.
"I love it when he does that," said his mother, standing nearby.