Is my tee ready yet, mum?

He may only be eight but 'The Wolf' is the UK's answer to Tiger Woods. Well, that's what his dad reckons anyway. Welcome to the weird world of kids' golf...
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He may only be eight but 'The Wolf' is the UK's answer to Tiger Woods. Well, that's what his dad reckons anyway. Welcome to the weird world of kids' golf...

Move over Tiger Woods —  make way for The Wolf. That’s the message from Ian and Lavinia Spurling, a couple from Leeds whose baseball caps proudly declare them to be “The Wolf’s Dad” and “The Wolf’s Mum”.

“He’s already a master of golf,” says Ian, pointing at his son. “He can hit 100 balls and won’t hook, slice or top a single one. He’s like a machine.”

Their sporting prodigy, Lee, meanwhile lolls in his seat, sucking a lollypop. The Wolf is just eight years old.

The launch of the new magazine Golf Punk suggests you don’t have to be over a certain age to enjoy this sport and that’s certainly true at the 2004 HSBC Wee Wonders Open Golf Championship, a ferociously competitive tournament for children aged 5 to 12.

Of the 4,000 initial entrants, only 36 boys and 34 girls have survived the 73 qualifying heats and nine regional finals to play in the grand final on the Balgrove Course at St Andrews.

But regardless of any heroics that have gone before, only 12 youngsters will make the cut for the Great Britain and Ireland team to play in the World Championships in America next year. It’s certain that there will be tears after tee time — the only question is whether they will belong to the kids or their parents.

The tournament, now in its tenth year, is the brainchild of the Scottish golf professional Alisdair Good, who once refused to believe that children could be taught to play. He was forced to reconsider while working as head coach at Foxhills Country Club in Surrey. Pursued for months by a parent pestering him to teach his five-year-old son, Good finally relented and was amazed when the boy chipped the ball repeatedly into his hands from five yards.

Now, as Lee Spurling waits for his 11am tee time, he appears far more relaxed than his mum and dad. The youngster sips a cola and stares into space while his dad, who is also his coach, warns that, despite his unproven status in this competition, everybody should be afraid of The Wolf. “I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t lift the title. He hasn’t been beaten since he was 3.”

Lee’s training schedule includes 21 hours of practice during the week and a further eight hours at weekends. “I try to keep him away from other things — they’d be a distraction,”  says Ian, who has clearly already mapped out Lee’s future. “I’ve put £50 on him to win a Major. I would have put a grand on but they wouldn’t let me — I’ve heard that William Hill are scared stiff of him.”

It’s certain that there will be tears after tee time — the only question is whether they will belong to the kids or their parents.

Going head-to-head with The Wolf is Maxwell Martin, the closest thing the Wee Wonders has to a celebrity. Four foot tall with spiky blond hair and an eye for designer clothes, Max has already notched a hole-in-one three times, including a 118-yarder in a regional final.

Hugely impressive as last year’s winner of the group for 5 and 6-year olds, he is now the youngest in the 7-to-8 group and will have to play the game of his young life to get a result. His dad, Ryan, reveals that a number of companies have already offered to sponsor Max. “They wanted him to do exhibitions but I had to turn them down because we don’t want to pressure him.”

Another problem, admits Ryan, gesturing at disconsolate members of the Maxwell Martin fan club, is his son’s growing interest in girls. “They will be his downfall.”

Also plotting his downfall is William Aldred. There’s something unnerving about the way this youngster says: “I’m definitely going to win.” Maybe it’s because it’s said with such calm self-assuredness. Or is it that he looks and sounds so much like a young Tiger Woods?

Like Tiger, William is mixed race. His father, James, is English and his mother, Shi-Ying, Chinese. “He first picked up a club when he was just one year and nine months old,” says James. “Since then, he’s barely put them down.”

William admits that between his golf and the piano, he barely finds the time to see any friends. “I want to be number one,” he says. It’s impossible to doubt him.

The rules of the Wee Wonders tournament give each player 36 shots to get as far around the nine-hole course as possible. When the 36th shot rolls to a stop, a flag is planted to mark its location. The winner is the player furthest around the course.

Despite the pressure caused by the low number of qualifiers the competition will allow, and expectations at the first tee that might cause many a veteran to shank their first shot deep into the rough, the young golfers appear to be far from nervous. In almost every case, there’s a swift practice swing, a little shufffle and then the ball pings in a neat arc through the air before landing safely on the fairway. The combination of near-perfect technique and a complete lack of the fear of failure makes the Wee Wonders awe-inspiring.

Forced to stay on the sidelines, having recently been banned from pulling their offspring’s golf trolleys, the parents can only watch in silence. Muscles tense in fathers’  forearms as they make every putt and they know that despite all those hours of coaching, the result is now in their prodigies’ gloved hands. Watching the parents’ faces compared to the easy way their children natter to their opponents, you can ’t help but wonder who cares more about success.

“The cost is extortionate,” says Ryan Martin, who last year spent £10,000 in lessons, kit and new clubs, which Max grows out of at a rate of a set every year.

According to Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Positive Parenting and a recognised commentator on parental issues, there are two forms of competition and Wee Wonders is the wrong kind. “The healthy type emphasises to the child the importance of improving on their last performance,” she says. “The unhealthy type demands that they compete against each other and judge themselves on the result.”

There is a danger, she argues, that parents, who perhaps didn’t have opportunities when they were young, may invest their own self worth in the achievements of their kids. They may even be coaching a child with an eye on the financial rewards associated with sporting excellence.

Even though Earl Woods made Tiger watch his golf swing from the tender age of six months, it is traditionally tennis that has led the way in pushy parenting.

“Kill the bitch, Mary!” shouted Jim Pierce before being banned from the 1993 French Open. More recently the father of a player was arrested on suspicion of drugging his son’s opponent. In a different game soon after, another of the boy’s opponents pulled out of the game, feeling tired and unwell, and died later after losing control of his car while driving home. Traces of an anti-anxiety drug were found in his body.

Of course, that’s an extreme example of pushy parenting and Alisdair Good is adamant that there’s no hint of it at Wee Wonders.

“I don’t think that the parents are putting too much pressure on their kids,” he says. “Some kids are so keen, it’s not about pushy parents but pulling kids. They’ve pulled their parents right across the country to play here today.” If there is a casualty on the junior golf circuit, it’s more likely to be the parents’ wallets.

“The cost is extortionate,” says Ryan Martin, who last year spent £10,000 in lessons, kit and new clubs, which Max grows out of at a rate of a set every year.

On top of that came the price of a trip across the Atlantic for the whole family to watch Max compete in the World Championships.

Less well-off families face even more problems. When eight-year-old Aimee Wilson, from Staffordshire, qualified for the Great Britain and Ireland team, her parents had to send out begging letters to various companies to find the funds. The couple had to start looking for second jobs.

As it turned out, Aimee, like so many others, missed the cut for the US trip. The fact that her father wouldn’t have to look for extra employment was clearly of no consolation. After the last putt had been missed, he was left staring forlornly at the leader board.

Despite a shaky start, Tiger-lookalike William gave an immaculate performance. He secured first place in the boys seven-to-eight-year-old category, narrowly beating his friend Maxwell. To the delight of their families, both qualified for the 2005 World Championships.

The Wolf, however, failed to live up to his father’s expectations. As Lee walked off the final fairway, his head drooped so low that it came to rest on the handle of his golf trolley.

“He made two costly mistakes, a couple of wrong club selections from what I saw,” says The Wolf’s Dad.

“But he’ll be back. With a vengeance.”