Janis Fontaine

Documentary “The Short Game” hits local theaters, features local kids
By Janis Fontaine - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Every year, the top golfers from all over the world come to North Carolina for a golf tournament. The documentary ‘The Short Game’ follows these pint-sized golfers at the top of their game at the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Champions in August at Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina.

Champions come in many sizes, but few are as adorable as the kids in the new documentary “The Short Game,” about the top junior golfers in the world.

The film, which opens Friday to at the Muvico Parisian, follows a pack of pint-size players during the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Champions in August at Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina. Barely taller than the clubs they use, these kids have winning spirits as big as the great outdoors. They need them to compete on this level.

Alexa Pano, 9, of Lake Worth, and Allan Kournikova, 9, of Palm Beach, are the top golfers in the world in their age groups, and best friends. Both have more than 100 tournament wins, earned with passion, practice and a positive attitude.

“They’re hard workers, out on the golf course by 8 a.m. until 4 in the afternoon, by choice,” Alexa’s dad, Rick Pano, said. “You have to drag them off.”

The kids say there’s nothing like the feeling of a flawlessly hit drive or sinking the perfect putt,, and nowhere else they’d rather be.

Brian Symonds, who coaches both kids, is the PGA professional at Winston Trails Country Club in suburban Greenacres. “These kids drive themselves to excel,” he said.

And striving for excellence makes them champions, Jack Nicklaus says in the film: “They’re learning about how to deal with adversity; how to win and how to lose. Sometimes, you just get beat. Stick out your hand and say, ‘Good job.��� Just try to be the best at what you do. That’s a champion.”

Allan agrees. “You’re not born a champion. You become a champion.”

Self-confidence is the cornerstone of their mental game, and another sign of a champion. “In my mind, I don’t even think about runner-up,” Allan said.

“We have to learn to focus and control our emotions,” Alexa said. “If you’re upset, you can’t win like that.”

“You have to believe in yourself,” Allan said.

Allan has a unique perspective: He’s tennis great Anna Kournikova’s younger brother, and he observed what’s required to compete at the pinnacle of your sport. He’s a sunny optimist who knows what he wants and goes after it, his mother said. Alla Kournikova digs in her purse for a calendar filled with scraps of paper. On a napkin, in large round letters, Allan had written: “I will win.”

Alexa and her father are constant companions on and off the course. “We have a rule: Act, learn, practice, play.” It reinforces the conviction that, if she’s prepared, it’s Alexa’s tournament to lose.”

Both kids already understand the importance of nutrition and conditioning on top of practice.

“If your body is not in good shape, you can’t be successful,” Allan said. That means chocolate cake only once in a while, not every day, he says.

Alexa agrees. “It’s hot, and you can get overheated if you’re not in good shape. And Pinehurst is one of the hottest tournaments.”

Part of their conditioning comes from playing so much golf. Allan and Alexa could travel to play a different tournament every weekend of the year. If it seems like a lot of pressure for a 9-year-old, it is, but Rick Pano says, “The stress is no different than school stress, or anything a kid feels passionately about.”

After consistently winning against kids their own age, Allan and Alexa now play against older kids who are bigger and stronger and have more experience, and where they’re not guaranteed to win. So far, the pair is rising to the challenge, Symonds said.

“I don’t know what the ‘it’ factor is, but I know they have it. But what we really want is for them to grow up to be good people,” Symonds said. “They are leaders, and they like being leaders.”

Now the kids are learning about giving back. Allan recently donated several sets of clubs to a local course that needed equipment for its junior golf program. Alexa is planning to visit kids in the hospital who can’t get out and play golf. She’ll bring golf to them, she says.

There are sacrifices to competing so much, “and a girl has to be tougher,” Rick Pano said. But the kids know the commitment it takes, and they still want to do it.

Alexa admits she sometimes misses events like sleepovers and birthday parties, but says there’s still room to be a girl, wear pretty dresses, talk about boys, and watch endless reruns of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

But Allan thinks that it’s the other kids who are missing out. He’s traveling and playing golf and spending time with friends who share his passion.

“Golf,” he says, “is the joy.”

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Top coach Brian Symonds’ advice for golf parents:

1. Find an instructor your child gels with, who they have chemistry with.

2. Everything builds on solid fundamentals.

3. Remember they’re kids when the flags are taken down.

4. Understand the time constraints — it takes a lot of time.

5. School and education have to come first.