By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
On an unusually sunny day in late April, 9-year-old Taighan Chea was at the driving range hitting golf balls with his golf coach, dad, and his dog looking on. Just a few weeks earlier, the Bothell middle-schooler had won the Drive, Chip & Putt Finals at the Masters Golf Course in Augusta, Ga.
The tournament is a joint initiative by the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association, and the PGA of America. It is a free nationwide event with over 10,000 entrants competing in girls and boys age groups, ranging from 7-15. The National Finals were held the Sunday before the Masters Tournament and broadcast live by the Golf Channel.
Taighan won his age group. In fact, he had the highest point total out of all of the winners in each of the age divisions.
The slight young man, decked out in a Nike hat, golf shorts, and polo, took time out of his practice shots to pet his dog and dance the “floss.” He exudes being an active kid with extreme focus, work ethic, and competitive spirit.
Taighan’s interest in golf began with the Netflix special, “The Short Game.”
The documentary featured some of the best 7-year-old golfers in the world. He was so intrigued by the documentary, Taighan wanted to play. Starting at the age of 4 and a half, his interest in golf was more than just a passing fad. Taighan’s father, Dalis Chea, was a good golfer in his own right, but stopped playing regularly once his son was born.
“My dad got me a [golf club] set and went on the course one day and hit some balls,” said Taighan.
Despite his win at Augusta, Taighan is a regular kid with a lot of interests. “I play a lot of sports.”
He named, “indoor soccer, basketball, and baseball.” He also listed recess as his favorite subject at school. Taighan’s favorite basketball players are the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard. If he doesn’t become a professional golfer, Taighan said he’d like to be a basketball player.
Taighan goes to the golf course once a week in the winter, weather permitting. The summer months are the time that he puts in practice, sometimes three hours a day, at least three days a week.
“It’s a hard thing to describe, but Taighan has the ‘it’ factor,” his coach Brian Flugstad said. “He has the ability to focus, the ability to work hard, the ability to struggle through things.” Flugstad added, “He’s willing to go through ups and downs.”
“His mental approach to stay focused, to maintain that competitive edge is so much different [than other kids’ his age].” It’s really hard to harness that kind of focus in most kids, said Flugstad. But Taighan is different.
In the summer, Flugstad gives Taighan a set of tasks, such as working on putts or taking shots from a bunker.
“He’s such a young, respectful young man, it’s pretty cool,” said Flugstad. This was exemplified by Taighan remembering to take off his hat and shaking your hand upon meeting.
The Drive, Chip & Putt competition starts local, then a subregional, and then a regional final of 10 with one getting to go to Augusta. Taighan beat out 10 others to make the final 10 in his age group at Augusta. “It’s pretty cool to get there (Augusta),” said Flugstad. “But a couple hours after [Taighan won a spot] making it there, our mentality was, ‘Let’s go win it.’”
Taighan has a special “fist bump” he shares with Flugstad before competition and they did it when his name was called to go out on the national stage, in front of many onlookers and a live television audience. In dealing with the pressure, Flugstad told him to ‘stick to the routine’ which provided a distraction from all that surrounded the 9-year-old.
The National Final saw a dramatic finish. With putting as the last part of the competition, Taighan took the lead by sinking a 15-foot putt on the 18th hole. After sinking the putt, Taighan gave a spirited uppercut fist in celebration, reminiscent of Tiger Woods. Despite the crowd erupting and a huge celebration, Taighan had enough poise to remember to take off his hat to shake hands with one of the officials that greeted him.
Professional golfer Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters Champion, “interview-bombed” (as Taighan described it) his television interview as he congratulated him. He also met Fred Couples and noted that the two were similar since they both do not wear golfing gloves.
“These are some of the best kids in the United States,” said Dalis Chea, Taighan’s father, of the competition. “It was real nerve-racking.” There was not a huge celebration after Taighan’s win.
“We sat in the Founders Room at Augusta National for 3 hours,” said Chea of one of the banquet rooms at Augusta. Yet, the experience was memorable for everyone, as Taighan was able to compete on one of the most famous courses in the world.
“It’s all go, no quit,” said Chea, about his son’s activities outside of school. “Every day is something.” Chea stated that Taighan realizes he has talent, but recognizes that he has to work hard since there are hundreds and maybe thousands who are as good. With the win at Augusta, Chea says that it has reinvigorated Taighan’s drive to compete.
“He now has a target on his back,” said Chea of others wanting to unseat his son next year.
Taighan has a great support system, which includes his family, coach, and trainers.
“There’s no pressure from anyone, probably except for his dad,” joked Chea.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.