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Tour Pro Prep
John Garrity
January 17, 2000
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
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January 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

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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 suite-mate 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.

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