As the nation patiently awaits the release of Mitt, Netflix has another treat in store—one that’s equally fun but half the size.
The Short Game, produced by Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel (livestreaming on Netflix starting today), follows eight 7-year-old golfers as they prepare to compete in the World Championships of Junior Golf at Pinehurst in North Carolina. Referred to as the “superbowl of kids golf,” it’s the pinnacle tournament for young golfers, bringing together 1500 players from 60 different countries—all under the age of 8. With a strict 365-days-a-year training schedule, the miniature pros literally eat, sleep, and breathe golf. All in the hopes of coming out the victor of the three-day August tournament.
The film is as eye opening about the world of kid’s professional sports as it is about kids in general. Failure isn’t an option, until they learn that it’s inevitable.
If the topic doesn’t capture you—the kids will.
On a snowy 29-degree day this week, four of the show’s stars—Allan Kournikova, Alexa Pano, Sky Sudberry, and Zama Nxasana—came bundled in coats they rarely wear to an outdoor driving range at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Hailing from Florida, Texas, and South Africa, the tiny film’s stars were too cold to play, and their parents too strict to let them. Alexa, considered by many to be the “Queen of kids’ golf”—nodded reluctantly as her dad softly explained why she couldn’t keep playing. “You go play out there, you’ll end up with pneumonia and be out for three months,” he said.
So, huddled in the warm hallway just outside the driving range, The Daily Beast caught up with the four champions and soon-to-be stars.
“I’m always bling-ed out on the course,” a beaming Sky Sudberry says. The uber-petite, blonde, blue-eyed 7-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, is every bit the sweet girl she appears to be in The Short Game. With a hint of a Southern accent, Sky gushes to me about everything from her love of performing (“Singing, dancing...mostly singing”) to the trademark ribbon scrunchies she wears in her hair (“My mom makes them!”). But despite her small stature and penchant for pink, Sky’s got a fierce competitive side. Sitting next to her dad in the film, she stares up at him as he brags about his daughter. “The best thing about Sky is she’s respectful, she has a great heart,” her dad says. Snickering in a tiny pink t-shirt, Sky pipes in: “You forgot something.” “What?” her dad responds, confused. “Umm…I’m talented, aren’t I?” Sky laughs.
It’s this competitive spirit and positive outlook that’s landed Sky the Texas State Champion title. But it’s not just golf she finds appealing. “I love college football,” she tells me with a devious grin. “Texas A&M.”
Alexa, standing beside Sky in a dark shirt and visor, perks up at the mention of football. Currently ranked the number one 8-year-old golfer in the world, Alexa’s debut in the film captures her perfectly: “I want to be the first woman at Augusta,” she says, stone-cold into the camera. “Girls are just as good as boys.” Today, unusually, the pressure is off her golf game. In lieu of that, Alexa points to a pin on her visor that bears the Raiders logo. “I usually wear a Raiders hat,” she says smiling. “I’m a big Raiders fan.”
Originally from Westborough, Massachusetts, Alexa now lives in Lake Worth, Florida, with her dad—who is also her caddy (which the film defines as a “daddy caddy”). In the few years that she’s been playing, Alexa has already successfully completed 130 tournaments—the majority of which she’s won. “You don’t see talent like this come around twice,” says her coach in the film. One of the most serious of the eight kids in the documentary, she’s also the most determined—regularly playing rounds of golf two times a day, seven days a week. Sitting with Alexa in a golf cart during the film, her dad jokes: “What do you say when I ask for a day off?” Alexa blushes: “I say no.”
Not far from Alexa, as is the case at most young golf tournaments, is her blonde male counterpart, and best friend, Allan Kornikova.
Oblivious to the conversations going on around him, Allan—the younger brother of the tennis star Anna Kornikova—is using his mom's boots as a putting green. “Here, aim for this,” Alla Kornikova (his mom) says to Allan, who lives with her in Palm Beach, Florida. Both tanned and blonde with striking features, it’s not hard to imagine where Anna fits in. But more than natural talent, it’s an unstoppable drive that makes Allan a champion. Barreling through tires and running uphill in the film, he’s finished a Cross Fit exercise before most are out of bed. As the top 7-year-old golfer in the world, he’s won 102 trophies—but he’s nowhere near done. “They’re so shiny,” a bright blue polo wearing Allan says into the camera. “It’s just good to have a collection of them.”
In person, as onscreen, Allan’s personality fills the room. Upon mention that he and Sky both have fur hoods on, he replies smugly: “Yeah, but mine’s real.” When asked about his warm-up routine for tournaments, he proudly says ‘60s and ‘70s music get him in the mood. “He likes the Bee Gees,” says his mom Alla, looking up from the white phone she’s playing with. “He’s an old soul.”
While Allan may have the best pedigree—and arguably the best attitude— it is South Africa’s 8-year-old Zama Nxasana that undoubtedly steals the show.
Smiling ear to ear in a bright yellow jersey, Zama is one of the first kids shown in the film, laughing at the producers while they ask him about becoming famous. “Yes, I’ll be rich!” he laughs. The mention of marriage causes Zama to break into a belly laugh. “I haven’t found a girlfriend yet!”
Still braving the cold at Chelsea Piers when I arrive, Zama (called “Zama the Dreamer” by his father) is grinning ear to ear in kelly green pants as he swings at the tee. He has reason to smile. After placing 43rd at Pinehurst in 2011, he moved up 25 places to land in 18th in 2012—a feat that earned him the title “Most Improved Player.” Upon learning this in the film, Zama jumps around and sings as if he’s won the lottery. In his eyes, he has.
After discussing his love of the singer Drake, the color orange, and South Africa, I ask what his goal is for next year’s tournament. With this, Zama puts down his club and looks up for the first time in our talk. Grinning, he shouts: “Win!”