Sky Sudberry, a 9-year-old golfer from Spring, Texas (with eyes to match her name), is destined to become the Sweetheart of Golf. With talent, smarts, and focused ambition—and now appearing in “The Short Game,” a documentary film released September 20*– this putter’s headed on a one-way road to success.
By Sara G. Stephens, Managing Editor
Sky Sudberry says she’d like to be famous. “Not crazy famous,” she giggles, “but famous!”
It looks like Sky just might get her wish. At age 9, this girl is one of the world’s best junior golfers. She has played more than 278 tournaments, many of which in the last year have planted her on the 1st place podium. Most recently, she placed second at the prestigious World Championships of Junior Golf, at Augusta Pines (slipping from first place at the final hole).
Sky’s golf skills have won her a fair amount of media exposure, but it’s nothing compared with the frenzy bound to break after the September 20 release of “The Short Game,” a documentary film that follows the lives of eight of the best 7-year-old golfers in the world as they train for and compete in the World Championships of Junior Golf. The annual tournament held at golfing mecca Pinehurst, North Carolina, brings in 1,500 young golfers from 54 different countries and determines who will be crowned golf’s next phenomenon. In its course, the eight stories entwine to form a fascinating and often funny portrait of a group of very young athletes and their families, in which the narrow-focused, peculiar and highly competitive junior golf subculture becomes both a window into contemporary global society and an inspiring reflection of the human condition.
There are many things about this film that make it unmistakably relevant viewing for today’s youth. Considering instant gratification is the ubiquitous battle cry for modern-day kids, “The Short Game’s” depiction of gratification derived from hard work, perseverance, emotional control, and sportsmanship is a well- delivered shot of some badly needed medicine.
Another life-enriching concept is woven brilliantly into this film: the beauty of individuality. Director Josh Greenbaum’s careful selection of which kids to highlight in the film suggests an invaluable “rock, paper, scissors” lesson for kids—we all have strengths and weaknesses, anyone can win, and anyone can lose. Introductory footage presents each player in his or her home country, giving the viewer a glimpse of the kid’s personality traits, intellect, family support, training, and physical characteristics and how each offers a competitive advantage or disadvantage in the game. Viewers move from this introduction segment of the film confident that any single player could emerge as champion—and on the edge of their seats to see who does.
Sky’s strongest physical advantage was identified early in life. Her parents, Bob and Robin, started their daughter playing tennis at age three. It was immediately clear she had exceptional eye-hand coordination. But various elements of tennis give the sport a steep learning curve, so Bob walked Sky over to the driving range to see how her abilities might play out in golf.
“She hit the ball in the middle every time she swung,” Bob marvels. “She had a good swing, good timing, and good rhythm.” The family met a group of older girls who played golf in tournaments around Texas. The girls immediately liked Sky and treated her like a little sister. The Sudberry’s began to travel with them over the year and into the summers. “They have been instrumental in getting us to where we are today,” Bob credits. “By taking Sky under their wing, they made it easier for us to enjoy playing 300 days a year.” Bob adds that members of this special group always support each other by going to the awards ceremony to cheer on whoever makes it to the podium.
No doubt, Sky’s natural, physical skills and abilities have gotten her far. But it is fair to say that raw emotional intelligence deserves equal credit for the young girl’s success.
She acknowledges her natural talent, but does not take it for granted. “I still have to put a lot effort into it to make myself better and better,” she asserts. This effort includes a daily regimen of going to school from 8:00 to 3:00, coming home at 4:00, resting or playing with her cat for 15 minutes, changing into her golf clothes to practice for a two hours, then going to bed around 9:00.
She approaches her weaknesses (in the film she notes that her physical strength could use some work, as she laughingly struggles with some weightlifting) not as obstacles, but as challenges. She’s had her share of “bad days,” but has never considered quitting as a result. “I still want to keep going, because I know I can get better,” she says.
She maintains a strong check of her emotional barometer. “I learn a lot about myself at the World Championships,” she reveals. “This year, one day I was in third place, then I was tied for second. It was a lot of pressure. But I focused on myself and not on [the competition]. Even though I lost, I was happy for them, and I was happy for myself, because I knew I did the best I could.” Famed professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez comments in the film that “It’s not what happens in life, but how you react to it”—a philosophy Sky takes to heart in her playing. “I agree with that,” she says. “If I hit a bad shot, I don’t cry. I don’t keep it in my head. I just move on to the next shot.”
Rather than resent her competitors, she admires their strengths. “I admire Alexa [Pano] because she’s calm and puts a lot of hard work into everything,” she says, adding, “And Allan [Kournikova] too, because he’s funny. A lot of players go out there and don’t see the sun or the trees or the water. They just see the green. I like that Allen’s not like that.”
She takes joy in the success of others. If there’s one thing Sky wants people to understand about her, it’s that, “I’m not all about winning, winning, winning,” she explains. “I have a calm temper, and I am happy for people who win when I don’t win.”
With such an even-tempered, well-balanced demeanor, one might think that the competitive aspect of golf would not appeal to Sky. With yet another surprise, she reveals that it’s the competitive nature of the sport that most draws her to it. “I like to compete,” she says, “and I like to meet new people and go places” (In one year, she traveled a total distance equal to the circumference of the Earth to play golf). As for what she likes least, the answer is less surprising: “I’m not sure…I like it all.”
Advice for Kids
There’s so much kids can learn from Sky. Beyond playing golf, she exemplifies pursuit of dreams. Acknowledging that kids who have not yet discovered their “big talent” can be frustrated and demoralized, Sky encourages that they keep trying—everything—until they find their passion. “If they have something in mind they want to do, they should go try it,” she urges. “Even if they fail, they should try again and again. If it doesn’t work out, or it turns out they just don’t like it, it’s no big deal. They can just move on to something else.”
For kids inspired by “The Short Game” to try their hand at golf, Sky recommends they go out and play some holes and just practice. “If they do well and like it and want to go further, they should keep playing and practicing.” She advises against using miniature golf or putt-putt to gauge one’s skills or interest. “Putt-putt is nothing like real golf,” she explains. “They need to go to a real golf course.”
A Family Affair
In the swirl of all the grown-up aspects of competitive junior golfing, it’s easy to forget that behind every successful golfer is a supportive parent. Sky says her dad takes her to practice every day and her mom goes to all her tournaments, unless she has to work. “They work it into what they have to do,” Sky says.
Many parents probably wonder how the Sudberry’s manage to walk the fine line of passionately guiding her gift, without forgetting she’s a child who is still learning about life, and vulnerable to their words, actions, and priorities.
“I will tell you every one of those things is important to win a golf tournament,” Bob says, adding that the littlest thing can mess up a player’s game–even the things you say. “As a caddy and a father, I need to know when to get a rise out of her. When to say things like, ‘Stay down on this one. You need to carry the ball farther than you think. Do you feel the breeze? Step on this one, you’ve got to get through the rough.’
“And I need to know when not to say anything. Anything you say might be what doesn’t work out for you. As you watch your child develop, you know what you can and can’t do.”
In “The Short Game,” Bob and Sky are shown walking together to the putting green on the final day of the championship. All through the film, Bob can be heard gently coaching his daughter on things to consider before she swings. At this moment, however, he simply says, “I’m so excited for you today.” The words seem so thoughtfully chosen, and it makes one wonder how the father’s understanding of the power of words translates to everyday life as a parent.
“That’s a great question,” Bob answers. “I think that through this whole process, there is a huge dynamic of father, mother, and a young, competitive, good golfer. It’s such a learning process, and once you get out there, you’ll find that several things can inspire you and many things can make you think negative thoughts. We spend so much time together, it’s like we’ve spent two lifetimes together. She works so hard, I want her to be rewarded for all that. And that’s what I meant: You go yourself in this position. You have the opportunity to win the World Championship. It’s about having the opportunity, not about winning or losing.
“These are the words to use every day. I tell Sky, ‘I’m excited about your going to school. I’m excited that you’re preparing for a big test.’”
It’s this kind of thoughtful parenting that makes it so easy to understand the Sudberry’s support of Sky’s passion for golf. “Golf has taught us to be appreciative and thankful and not take it too seriously,” he muses. “I’ve seen others take it too seriously, and I did at first, I admit.”
“Golf humbles you,” Bob continues. “Just when you think you’re great, someone comes up and is better. And that’s what I love about this movie. It’s more than just, ‘look at me, look at me.’ It teaches some serious values and life lessons.”
Sky appreciates her parents’ help and dedication. “It helps a lot to have their support,” she says. “It’s really nice to have that.”
After all is Said and Done…
Through the genius of her stroke and the maturity of her intellect, it would be hard for anyone reading this to remember that Sky is, after all, a kid. She loves to sing and dance (her favorite singer is Victoria Justice). She likes gymnastics, and she at least partially entrusts her success to the unfailing support of her lucky rabbit, Rabby.
Although Sky hopes “The Short Game” will launch her into the celebrity sphere, she also aspires to one day attend Stanford University. And her single goal, into whose realization she pours every ounce of passion, is to become a professional golfer.
She’s a regular kid, who just happens to be exceptional.
And if that’s not star-worthy, it’s hard to guess what is.
*Phase 4 Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films’ The Short Game opened in Houston September 20 at Gulf Pointe 30 Theatre and Cinemark @ Market Street 5 in the Woodlands.