"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
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.