It’s a pretty standard sports documentary, but The Short Game still manages a birdie with an entertaining look at pint sized golfers trying to get a head start at the big time. It’s also probably one of the few examples of the genre that adults could watch with their children without either side getting incredibly bored. It’s a crowd pleaser in every way, but at least the way it goes about earning its emotions feels just a little different than most.
Director Josh Greenbaum goes inside the lives of 8 boys and girls aged 7 or 8 at they gear up to compete in the World Junior Championships of golf in Pinehurst, North Carolina. It’s a prestigious tournament that pretty much sets young people up for potential success in their adult careers. The 45 minutes or so is all typical set up – going through and meeting everyone before getting to the actual competition. There’s Allan Kournikova, the #1 ranked 7 year old in the world who has a quick wit, strength trains every morning before school, and just so happens to be the little brother of famed tennis superstar Anna. Zama Nxsana from South Africa is a relative newcomer coming off a particularly rough year and is looking to bounce back. Kuang Yang from Shenzen, China got into golf mistaking a tutorial DVD for cartoons at the age of 2. Alexa Pano from Lakewood, Florida is Allan’s best friend on the tour (meaning: potential crush), lives with her divorced father, and seems to have the biggest hype around her as an athlete. Jed Dy from the Philipines is a high functioning autistic young man who comes out of his shell on the course. Augustin Valery from Paris speaks like an effortless raconteur and seems to have a backstory and character arc Wes Anderson would adore. Sky Sudberry – a Texan girl and stuffed rabbit enthusiast – might have eclipsed the success of pro golfers in her hometown, but she’s too small for golf’s power and driving game. Finally, there’s Aamari Avery from Riverside, California, a young woman with deep spiritual and coincidental life connections to Tiger Woods that trains as hard as possible, but needs to overcome her own feelings of frustration when things don’t go the way she likes on the course.
The kids are all delightful to watch and deal with the spotlight with a refreshing amount of good humour, making the cookie cutter set up pretty forgivable. Even the parents – with the possible exception of Sky, who wishes her dad would stay quiet every now and then, and Augustin’s mother who could use a bit more screen time – don’t come across as tyrannical stage managers. They just seem happy to support their kids in any way they can. Most fascinating is Aamari’s father, who by his own humbling admission is “a C Person trying to raise an A person.” As her storyline progresses, he’s the more fascinating of the two to watch, caught between wanting his child to be happy and be a kid and knowing deep down that golf might be Aamari’s only shot at going to college.
Established pros Gary Player, Annika Sorenstam, and Chi Chi Rodriguez pop up to talk about why golf is one of the hardest sports on Earth, and it never really concerns who (if anyone) will ultimately win their division. Greenbaum knows how to use a pop song to set up these kids as rockstars, and he knows how to wring tension from the dangers of being late for a tee time, superstitions, and the risk of taking a shot that might not pay off. Greenbaum is really only taking a chip shot from just outside the green in terms of filmmaking ambition, but he still makes it to the pin in a single stroke.