Kenji met La Trease in junior high, when he would take the bus from South Central Los Angeles to a school in the San Fernando Valley. They've been together ever since. After Kris was born, Kenji soon had dreams of his son growing up to play football. "I didn't know anything about golf," Kenji says. "But after we all started getting competitive on the Wii, my brother said we should go out to the range."
Kris, 5 at the time, remembers well that first swing on the practice tee, using an adult-size pitching wedge. "My dad told me to keep my head down and my left arm straight and not to get frustrated if I missed." Kenji chimes in, "It was just pow! Up in the air. Held his finish. I said, 'Do it again.' He did it again and turned to me and said, 'Like this, Dad? This is easy.'"
Says Kris of that maiden swing: "After I hit it, I was shocked. I felt like this is my way to shine. I could do anything, like my career has just started."
Mom wasn't as giddy at first. La Trease wanted to ensure that her son would enjoy just being a kid. "But golf is all he wants to do," she says. "When you tell him he can't play, it's like you've taken the breath out of his body. He's devastated."
When Kris was 6, Kenji entered his son in his first event, in Las Vegas. Kris finished second, competing in a red Power Rangers costume. "We tend to forget they're kids, because on the course they're adults," says Steve Kwon, whose son, Josh, is in the final group with Kris at Moreno Valley. "I have to remind myself that my son still plays with Iron Man figures." After Kris pars the first hole, a 433-yard par 4, Steve adds, "All the kids play like adults, but Kris thinks like an adult."
Kris says that when he's at school, golf never crosses his mind. "Did my dad tell you my grades?" he asked sheepishly, as if he had something to hide. (He has a 3.6 GPA.) When asked if he feels pressure to win, he says, "No, I've never thought about it until you asked." He smiles shyly. "But I really hate losing."
"Unlike some child phenoms, Kris is the one who wants to compete, not his parents," says Patterson, Kris's teacher. "His idea of fun is chasing after what this game will never give you: perfection."
Perfection continues to elude Kris in the final round at Moreno Valley. On the second hole, a par 3, he chunks a wedge into a waste bunker. His next shot falls short into deep rough. He chips on from there and two-putts for double-bogey. Kris shoots his dad a panicky look, then bogeys the ensuing hole. Kenji whispers, "It feels like the wheels are about to fall off the bus."
But they don't. After missing the fairway at the fifth, Kris hits his second shot onto the front-left fringe, and from there curls in a 20-footer for birdie. Then he cards five straight pars. At the closer, the 324-yard, par-4 ninth, he crushes a drive 240 yards, flips a sand wedge to the green and two-putts to finish 2-over on the day, 1-over for the tournament. Will it be enough? He's heard that another contender, William Villegas-Mellein, who started the day at 3-over, made a couple of birdies. But when the boys catch up with the group ahead at the scorer's table, Kris discovers that William doubled the last. Kris wins by a stroke.
There is no fist-pumping or chest-bumping. Just a quick call to Mom. "She asked me if I had a good day," he says smiling. "I said I had a great day."
Kris rejoins his pals on the putting green, where they sing "Happy Birthday" to William. Two tournament officials award Kris his trophy, to the applause of a small group of kids and parents standing by the practice area, though Kris seems more enthused about his other prize: a black Bridgestone backpack.
His plans for the evening? A quick bite with Kenji and Ashlie -- "I'm gonna let my sister pick," Kris says -- then back in the Camry for the two-hour drive home. Who knows what awaits on the road ahead?