Film Review: The Short Game

Wonderfully entertaining, technically perfect documentary about kids gone wild on the green.

For most of my life, I never saw my father on Sundays and, later, Thursdays, for he was always on the golf course. Being basically sports-phobic, I could never understand the appeal of endlessly chasing a tiny ball around miles of acreage in the sweltering Hawaiian sun, especially when he’d come home five sheets to the wind, reeking of sweat and beer.

Until now.

Josh Greenbaum’s delightful documentary The Short Game trains its eye on eight children, all obsessed with golf and bent on competing in the annual World Championships of Junior Golf in the seven- to eight-year-old divisions. They travel from as far afield as Africa and Paris to Pinehurst, North Carolina, for a tournament that is as dead-serious as any involving their collective idol, Tiger Woods. Allan Kournikova, a cherubic blond with a killer swing, opens the film and is a natural little showman, with his dreams of someday owning his own golf course replete with hotel and fancy restaurant. His mother, whose other talented offspring is tennis champ Anna Kournikova, observes how endlessly entertaining she finds him, and it would be hard to debate that.

And luckily, the other kids are just as engaging. Alexa Pano is Alan’s best friend and maybe more than that, and like him is a ferocious competitor and winner of many a title. Tiny Texan Sky Sudberry seems the most normal of little girls, aping dance moves on TV, until she has a club in her hand and swings it with a fury of someone three times her size. Both girls, you soon see, are also afflicted with helicopter-hovering, anxious dads, whose ubiquitous presence can be a hindrance as much as a help. Perhaps most charming of all is African Zamokuhle Nxasana, a radiant, chubby kid out to score glory for his proud country, with an equally beamingly beneficent father who observes that the dual happy bounce of their butts as they walk is an indicator of how well his son is doing.

Greenbaum gives us a full portrait of the game itself—with Sudberry giving a cute rundown of the many terms like “par,” “birdie” and “bogey” one must learn, and veteran pros like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez (all fabled names from my admittedly yawn-filled childhood) weighing in on what it takes to compete in this seemingly dull but most fiendishly difficult of sports. The director also gives us full views of the children’s highly varied family backgrounds, all of them linked by a lot of personal sacrifice and shared desire to win on the green. It comes as a real relief to discover that none of them regrets giving up a normal childhood for this fearsome pursuit, as they are all completely obsessed by it of their own choosing.

It’s striking how much human drama the director packs into his film, as when the intensely shy Filipino contender Jed Dy shows up late for his call and is given a penalty so heartbreakingly devastating it knocks him from the first-place position he surely would have won. Amari Avery, nicknamed “Tigress” for her idolatry of the iconic Woods and their shared Asian/black heritage, has attitude problems, especially when losing, as does her father—stage moms have nothing on these guys—and in the where-are-they-now concluding epilogue you learn that they are both now in counseling.

The final moments of the tournament are as excitingly fraught as any ever caught on film, as the scorecard reveals the ever-shifting player positions, and the pristine cinematography, crackerjack editing and Mark Mothersbaugh’s dynamic music skillfully enhance the suspense. This is one film that can truly be recommended for the entire family, even if not a single member has ever picked up a putter.