10-year-old Va. golf prodigy shines on international stage

DULLES, Va. — Results in youth sports can be misleading. Little League home run leaders aren’t necessarily destined for superstardom in the big leagues. The fastest, strongest athletes in grade school are often simply those who have grown up a little quicker than their classmates, enjoying a physical edge that will level out after growth spurts and bodies fill out.

The sports world is littered with such cautionary tales, from Robo Quarterback Todd Marinovich to David Sills, the seventh-grader to whom Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship while he was head coach at USC. That’s why labeling anyone a sports prodigy, especially before they’ve even entered middle school, can be problematic. Nevertheless, word started to get out this summer about a local golfer, Sihan Sandhu, who had just accomplished something preposterous.

Already a promising young player who had won some tournaments on the junior circuit, 10-year-old Sihan struck a deal with his parents, Ruby and Navneen: Win the World Championship in his age group, and he can start home schooling, allowing him to build his own schedule. Home school was something they had considered already, as the family split some of its year between Northern Virginia and North Carolina. But Ruby and Navneen figured this gave Sihan something to work toward, a pie in the sky dream while they waited to see how good he might really be.

“We never thought he was going to actually do it,” Ruby said, laughing.

And they certainly didn’t see what happened in August coming.

The rest of the top 10 finishers in the 10-year-old age group at the World Championship ended their three-round tournament with scores ranging from -1 to -6, very impressive numbers for golfers of such a young age, playing mostly from the red tees at Pinehurst’s #2 course. Then there was Sihan, who shot 68 on the final day for what was by far his worst round of the event, having shot 63 and 62 the two days prior. His three-round total: 23 strokes under par, 17 shots clear of the field, a margin of victory greater than the combined total of the four age groups below him.

Sihan

To see Sihan play is to truly understand what he does so well. Out at 1757 Golf Club in Ashburn, Virginia, we played a round along with his coach, Adam Harrell, with father Ruby tagging along for the ride.

“I haven’t played here in a long time,” said Sihan as he tees up on the first hole.

How long?

“Like, a week.”

One is reminded about the difference in how time moves when you’ve only lived 10 years.

At first blush, Sihan doesn’t look the part. He’s short — even for his age — with a smiley, unimposing character. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and is easy to laugh as his coach cracks jokes around the driving range.

Then he starts playing.

Every drive is flushed, well over 200 yards, splitting the fairway with the slightest draw. His irons are true, usually finding the green. Even his miss-hits, rare as they are, are still pretty good. He hits one chip low and is frustrated by his execution, but jams enough spin into the ball to stop it on the back fringe.

On the third hole, a par 3, with nobody behind the group, Harrell finds a teachable moment to work on a tight sand shot from a greenside bunker, with only about 10 feet of green with which to work (mind you, Sihan didn’t even hit his shot into the bunker — he stuck it within 15 feet in the middle of the green). Harrell shows him how to open the club face up by laying the club down, creating a nearly flat plane to lift the ball softly onto the green. Harrell hits one shot past the pin, then fluffs a couple others, which don’t make it out of the trap. It’s a tough, touch shot, and he wants to see if Sihan can execute it.

Sihan steps into the bunker and tries one, sending it past the hole. Harrell gives a little more instruction and Sihan steps back into the bunker again, nonchalantly squares up, flops it onto the green and buries it in the hole.

When the round is finished, he’s shot a 73. It’s not his best score — “I’ve shot three under here before” — but it’s good enough to beat me by a solid margin, and even to beat Harrell this day.

Sihan’s preparation is complex, but his singular shot approach is simple: Check the distance, step back, pick his line, execute one practice swing, open his feet and hit the ball. As with many aspects of his success, there seems to be value in not making things too complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games, as his coach makes clear after a round full of gentle ribbing throughout their friendly competition.

“He wouldn’t do as well if we goofed off all the time,” said Harrell.

Sihan poses with his coach, Adam Harrell. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)
Sihan poses with his coach, Adam Harrell. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)

Sihan has been with Harrell almost two years, since his European Championship victory back in 2014.

When he was 8.

They meet three times every two weeks, another example of how Sihan’s training is paced, another way of preventing overload and burnout. It’s enough, as Sihan is a quick learner and understands the game at a level far more advanced than most his age.

“His golf IQ is so high, I can speak to him like he’s 16, 17, 20,” said Harrell, who founded the Elite Performance Golf Academy at Westpark Golf Club in Leesburg.

Sihan’s little sister, Savera, just turned 6 and is already showing some promise. It’s another opportunity for Harrell to needle him, to keep him humble while nudging him gently.

“She might be the best player in the family,” Harrell said, smiling. “She sure works a lot harder than Sihan does.”

This, as it turns out, would be nearly impossible.

Sihan does drills with Nick Guyton, part of his twice-weekly strength and conditioning training. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Sihan does drills with Nick Guyton, part of his twice-weekly strength and conditioning training. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a muggy late summer night, the sun already extinguished over the western horizon. Back behind the practice facility on the edge of the driving range at 1757, a makeshift obstacle course of cones and rope ladders is laid out. Sihan has already been at the course practicing since 3:30, with a swim lesson breaking up his day, then back to the course to get this strength and agility workout in.

He trains with Nick Guyton, a former Marine who looks something like a redheaded Chris Pratt after bulking up for an action role. A government contractor by day and long drive competitor, Guyton works with athletes like Sihan in his spare time, specifically on low or no impact training like this, where the heaviest thing he’ll pick up is a medicine ball. They used to meet once a week, but have increased training to twice a week this year.

But that isn’t the only extra work Guyton has gotten since starting with Sihan. At least five other young golfers at 1757 have started training with him as well, looking to tap into some of Sihan’s success.

Guyton is happy to help, but believes it’s the combination of Sihan’s talent, his internal drive and his family support that put him in the position to excel.

“He’s a special kid and they’re a special family,” he said after the workout finishes. No sooner have the words escaped his mouth and Sihan has a club in hand again, getting a couple final chips in before finally heading home.

Sihan and Ruby in Scotland while there to play in the European Championship. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)
Sihan and Ruby in Scotland while there to play in the European Championship. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)

On days when it snows, the staff at 1757 will help Sihan dig out a stall on the driving range so he can hit balls. He practices every day but Sunday, all year round, often for several hours a day.

The only time Sihan takes away from the game is when the whole family vacations in Mexico. In the past, they’ve left their clubs at home, putting the game on the back burner entirely. This year, though, the clubs are coming along — Sihan and Ruby will be stopping back in Florida on the way home for another tournament.

Ruby is slender and tall, well over 6 feet. It’s not hard to imagine where Sihan might top out once his biggest growth spurts kick in, and where the extra strength and power that come with it could take his game.

We’ve all seen the helicopter dads, the ones who hover over their kids’ every move, inserting themselves into each facet of their development. Ruby couldn’t be more opposite. He enjoys golf, but doesn’t play anymore. He’s happy to make sure Sihan gets where he needs to go, but is just as likely to leave him to his own devices once at the course than he is to hang out and watch him hit.

“I don’t have to baby-sit him,” Ruby said. “I go in the restaurant and say, ‘Find me when you’re done.’ The motivation comes from within.”

The legend of Tiger Woods’ preparation — hitting 1,000 balls a day, when he was healthy — is well known in the golf world. That hasn’t been Sihan’s approach, though. He only hits about 100 shots a day off the range, enough to keep his swing in its groove without wearing himself out. He puts in the hours, yes, but a heavy majority is devoted to his short game and his putting, the aspects of the sport many casual golfers simply can’t find the time for.

That internal motivation is crucial, but it doesn’t mean golf is Sihan’s entire life. He likes to ride ATVs and play cricket in his spare time. His favorite subject is math, a good one for a golfer. Of course, he still has a few years before he even reaches geometry. But he knows his stride is roughly 2-and-a-half feet, good enough to help him walk off inexact distances.

There are golf academies, where kids devote their lives to the game. Being with other like-minded, driven athletes may help feed the competitive drive, but it’s hard to imagine where a work-life balance like the one Sihan enjoys fits into the equation. Single-sport focus can create burnout, both physically and mentally. And there’s pressure on everyone involved to make sure the most successful young athletes continue to succeed.

Sihan poses with a signed flag after setting the course record at the World Championship. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)
Sihan poses with a signed flag after setting the course record at the World Championship. (Courtesy: Sandhu Family)

True to their word, Ruby and Navneen allowed Sihan to begin home schooling just a few weeks ago. But that accelerated the long-term plan, one which diverges, depending on who you ask.

Ruby’s plan is college, hopefully a full ride from a great university, setting his son up to be successful outside of golf as well. For now, Sihan’s plan is more ambitious. There is no age limit to qualify for the Asian Tour, which he hopes to do by age 14, before moving to the European Tour at 16 and, finally, the PGA Tour when he becomes eligible at 18.

Those are bridges the Sandhus will cross when they reach them. For now, they’re just trying to open every door they can to allow Sihan to succeed and to keep them open as long as they can.

“It’s a team effort,” Ruby said of the work of Harrell and Guyton, noting that Billy Casper Golf has opened its doors to let Sihan play any of its courses for free. “We’ve been very fortunate. We didn’t ask for it.”

There will be more hands reaching into the fray in the future — agents, advisers, others who see Sihan’s potential as a means to do well by themselves. There will also be the changing priorities of adolescence, competing interests for attention and time.

But for now, there’s the PGA Invitational Oct. 7-8 in Port St. Lucie, Florida, a week-and-a-half away.

Or, as Sihan might put it, a really long time from now.

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