If the cute kids’ competition doc craze began at SXSW just over a decade ago with “Spellbound,” it may be revived with “The Short Game,” a brisk 90-minute jaunt through the World Championship of Youth Golf where putters ages 7-8 are being groomed to be the next Tiger Woods. However, what makes Josh Greenbaum’s debut such a pleasurable watch is that he’s found the first Alexa Pano and Augustin Valery, personalities so big they fill the screen and then some.
Not lacking for resources, the film can be divided in half perfectly, the first 45 minutes spent meeting the golfers and their parents in such far-reaching places as South Africa, China and France while the second half is set in Pinehurst, North Carolina where the world’s best go every year. Filmed with big, beautiful sweeping shots to match the swings of the kids, the latter section generally adheres to a tried-and-true formula though even as the competition grows more intense, it admirably takes great pains to remind audiences of the precocious age of the competitors. But it’s in the first part where the film really makes its hay, traveling around the world to learn how the eight kids it follows got into the game.
There’s the aforementioned Pano, a child of divorce who’s happy to have taken her father’s side so he could caddy for her at the 100-plus tournaments she’s played at before turning eight. She’s flanked by fellow American girls Sky Sudberry and Amari Avery, two eight-year-olds from different sides of the tracks – the former a kid from the upper middle class burbs of the Woodlands in Texas while the latter is nicknamed “Tigress,” a nod to all she has in common with Tiger Woods from her mixed Asian/African-American heritage to her birthday and birthplace of Riverside, California to her anger problems on the course.
On the boys’ side, there’s even more diversity with Jed Dy, a shy eight-year-old from the Philippines whose parents get into golf to be more proactive, Augustin Valery, an eight-year-old Parisian who has no such confidence problems though he’s blunt about the fact he may not be physically strong enough to compete. Elsewhere, seven-year-olds Kuang Yang of China and Allan Kournikova of Florida (yes, you might know his sister Anna) both have excelled in supportive environments while Zama Nxasana has fought an uphill battle as the rare golfer from South Africa.
Former pros like Bob Tosky and Annika Sorenstam are sprinkled in, but the film wisely keeps the talking head interviews to a minimum to spend quality time with the families, who would be interesting even if there wasn’t golf involved.
Though the film reaches to place the World Championship into a larger social context – Zama’s parents take him to an Apartheid museum, Amari’s father openly says “we’re C people [figuring out] how we’re going to make an A person” when it comes to financial class – “The Short Game” is at its best when capturing the quirks of its subjects young and old, following the families to dinner after the first round or observing the children as they exchange roles with their parents once they get on the course.
There’s no need to highlight the maturity level of the kids involved when they do it for themselves through the interviews Greenbaum collects and the array of wonderful, small moments that he captures and though golfing may be one of the world’s most solitary sports, it’s the team effort both behind and in front of the camera that make the 18 holes played here feel like a hole in one.