'The Short Game': Netflix documentary female stars are helping to change golf

    THE SHORT GAME, (from left): Alexa Pano, Allan Kournikova, 2013. ©Samuel Goldwyn Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    (CNN)"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.
        Pano stands atop the podium after winning the Regional Finals Girls 7-9 section of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
        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.
        Pano walks off the 1st tee during the Junior Solheim Cup.

        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 in action during the Junior Solheim Cup.
        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 hits her drive on the 12th tee during the final round of the Annika Invitational.

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        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.