“How you like me now?” say eight sassy golf whiz kids into the camera, accompanied by the catchy tune of the same name in the Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”
The year is 2012 and the stars of the show are 1,500 seven and eight-year-old golf prodigies representing 60 different countries, all vying for a chance to become a U.S. Kids World Champion at the daunting Pinehurst course.
Of the eight we meet up close, three are young girls, of whom two come first. Not that it’s all about winning; it’s a raucously fun movie designed to get kids into golf. It’s stressful watching though – the parent-child relationship shown in microscopic detail.
When it was released in 2013, Augusta National had only just accepted its first two female members the previous year in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier and philanthropist Darla Moore.
Yet with the birth of two tournaments at Augusta before the Masters in April – the Drive, Chip and Putt inaugurated in 2014 and the Augusta National Women’s Amateur (ANWA) – the game is clearly diversifying.
Junior golfers (age six to 17) in the US now total more than three million with more than one million girls, rising from 25% of the total in 2010 to 34% last year, according to the National Golf Foundation.
On a similar upward curve are Californian Amari Avery and Floridian Alexa Pano, now aged 17 and 16, who won at Pinehurst in their respective USK categories back in 2012. Nine years later, both made the 82-player ANWA field.
“I want to be the first woman to play a tournament at Augusta. Girls are just as good as boys,” says a measured Pano when we first meet her in the Netflix documentary – the girl who is filmed practicing in the rain then shivering because she’s freezing.
She’s the last to leave the range.
Avery is filmed doing push-ups and sit-ups with her dad Andre and sister Alona for company. She’s now heading to the University of Southern California next year on a golf scholarship and knows the meaning of hard yards.
“You can be a child prodigy and have all the talent in the world, but it won’t get you anywhere if you don’t put in the work,” she told CNN Sport over the phone before winning the inaugural Mack Champ Invitational in Houston in March, an event set up by PGA Tour star Cameron Champ for the game’s best junior golfers from diverse backgrounds.
“I’ve not had to live up to any expectations. I’m my own person away from ‘The Short Game.’ I loved being in it, but I want to be spoken about for winning a big tournament.”
Although neither player made the Saturday finale at Augusta in the 54-hole event – the first two rounds take place at nearby Champions Retreat before a practice round for all competitors at Augusta on the Friday – they have time on their side.
Pano, the youngest competitor this year, just as she was in 2019 when she also missed the cut, has added motivation to return next year.
Missing the cut and grandmother’s Mentos
Already twice a Drive, Chip and Putt winner at Augusta, Pano missed the ANWA cut as the youngest player in the 2019 field and thus missed the chance to play competitive golf on the undulating layout.
Even though she was able to play Augusta in a practice round, the crowds at the weekend set her competitive fires alight as she watched the then top-ranked amateur, Jennifer Kupcho, play her final six holes in five-under par to be crowned the inaugural champion.
“It was something unlike I’d ever seen in women’s golf. It was super motivating to want to come back this year,” Pano told CNN Sport over the phone from the Gainbridge LPGA in February, before a practice round in the week women’s golf icon and International Golf Federation president Annika Sorenstam made her first competitive appearance in 13 years.
The current momentum around women’s golf is perhaps something Pano’s grandmother – seen in “The Short Game” superstitiously clutching a packet of Mentos to bring the youngster luck – saw on the horizon before she died in 2013, just after a fourth USK World Championship title for her granddaughter.
“She wanted to watch Alexa compete in a tournament someday at Augusta,” Pano’s devoted father Rick told CNN Sport in an email.
“Alexa told her she was already in the first Drive, Chip and Putt. Her grandmother said: ‘No, there will someday be a women’s tournament at Augusta.’
“That was five years before the ANWA was announced. The ANWA is by far the biggest thing that’s ever happened in golf for females.”
The 2019 tournament was the most viewed amateur golf event in the US since 2003 and the most-watched women’s golf event since 2016.
“I think we are going to have some really great effect down the road. It has been terrific,” said Sorenstam after Kupcho’s famous win.
Pano has been exposed to the biggest stage from a very young age, playing the 2016 Yonex Ladies Open in Japan aged 11, the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic aged 13, and the U.S. Women’s Open aged 14.
She’s been inspired by the likes of Kathy Whitworth – whose 88 LPGA Tour wins outshine Tiger Woods’ and Sam Snead’s 82 in the men’s game – but like so many women, she wants more from golf.
“I can’t complain because I’ve had amazing experiences in the women’s game, but there are so many things that can be improved or more equal.
“I think everyone out here has had to overcome their own battle, and all that any woman golfer wants is for the attention to be on their golf. Not how they’re dressed.”
Avery says she’s learned a lot from “mentor” Carlota Ciganda – the European Solheim Cup winner who she played alongside as the Spaniard triumphed on the Cactus Tour in late February 2020.
The following week, Avery won her first professional tournament on the same tour, where Women’s Open champion Sophia Popov regained some form before her career breakthrough moment.
“I think women’s golf needs a bit of help because there aren’t many people watching,” added Avery.
“But I’d love to bring some conversation to the table about women’s golf. In future, when I’m done playing, I still want to be a part of it on the business side and help it along.”
Avery listens to upbeat music, likes rapper Drake, mentions Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka because she follows tennis “like crazy” and has enjoyed cooking during the pandemic.
There’s a superstitious streak in her family too. If you’re looking for good omens, she shares a December 30 birthday with five-time Masters champion Woods while her initials – ANA – have brought past success at ANA Inspiration host course Mission Hills in California.
It all bodes well for the future, as does the W in ANWA after a promising debut – she made the five-way playoff for the final spot at Augusta but narrowly missed out.
“The W stands for winner (trophy emoji),” says her proud father in an upbeat WhatsApp message.
Meanwhile, Pano jokes that Adele’s music is “clean enough to play with my Dad” but there’s a deeper meaning behind listening to the British superstar.
“I feel like every event I’ve won, this one Adele song would play: Set Fire to the Rain. So that song really resonates with me.”
And their love for Adele isn’t the only connection between golf and music.
Enter former One Direction singer Niall Horan.
Alongside Englishman Mark McDonnell, Irishman Horan co-founded Modest! Golf to help diversify and freshen up the sport.
Having grown up with Justin Rose and no doubt tapping into the 2016 Olympic champion’s mindset, McDonnell hopes with events like the inaugural ISPS Handa World Invitational in Northern Ireland in July – where a mixed field will play for equal money – they can help change the narrative.
“The girls are very passionate about wanting to be seen. If they can be seen, they can inspire. So more TV is the biggest challenge, it’s all to do with platform,” McDonnell told CNN Sport.
“Angel Yin is 22 and has already competed at two Solheim Cups, she played the US Open aged 13 and she’s a young superstar, but it’s amazing how many people haven’t heard of her and that’s a problem,” added McDonnell, whose company also has German golfer Olivia Cowan and Ireland’s Leona Maguire on their cards.
“We worked with an Irish company, and they interviewed young girls on who their heroes are. Every single one of them mentioned a male sports star.
“If I had a daughter, I’d want her to have icons of people to look up to. Some of the most successful people in sport and business are females, and they deserve the same platforms as men. That’s our humble opinion and that’s the message we’re going to continue to drive.”
With the LPGA/USGA Girls Golf initiative increasing participation by more than 1,800% from 2010-2020 among females aged six to17 – with a goal of breaking 100,000 by 2022, say the USGA – this is where the game is heading in 2021.
They’re not even 18, yet Avery and Pano can already look back with immense pride.
“Young girls and even young boys, but mainly young girls, they say they were inspired by the movie to take up golf. That was the main thing we wanted to come out of it,” said Pano.
“I see my Instagram DMs and when I get to meet them in person and they say that, it’s the best feeling.”