The Short Game premieres in a dozen theatres in cities across the country on Friday, September 20. A crew of documentary filmmakers followed eight of the world’s elite golfers as they trained for the 2012 Junior World Golf Championship at Pinehurst in North Carolina. There’s just one catch: they’re 7-years-old. In an exclusive interview with Golf.com, director Josh Greenbaum talks daddy caddies, temper tantrums and Justin Timberlake and reveals life lessons gleaned from following the world’s smallest scratch golfers.
How did you find this story? What attracted you to it?
The project started about two years ago, when David Frankel (of The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) introduced Rafael Marmor (the producer of the film) and myself to this amazing world. David has two kids who play competitive junior golf, and as a documentary filmmaker, I’m always looking for new worlds to explore or worlds we know well that could use a fresh perspective. When I found out that these 7-year-old kids play such a difficult game so well, it was just mind-blowing. We started casting in 2011, and we travelled all over the world over the next year in preparation for filming at the 2012 tournament.
Should we expect a comedy or a drama?
It’s a mix of both, just like real life, but it keeps a comedic tone throughout. It’s about the 1,500 kids who come together once a year and compete at a very high level and make incredible friendships. Our subject from South Africa, Zama Nxasana, met our subject from France, Augustin Valery, and they became best friends; they don’t speak the same language, but they’re keeping in touch as pen pals, and halfway through filming we find out that Zama thinks Augustin is a girl because he has long hair. So it’s a funny, uplifting movie that makes you feel a little bit better about the world we live in, which I think we could all use sometimes.
So often when following children in hypercompetitive arenas, it seems that the story becomes more about the obsessions of the parents (see Dance Moms, Toddlers & Tiaras) than the dreams of the kids. Does your film address the way we push young people to train, to compete, to win?
The parents play a big role, but at the end of the day, it’s about the kids. I wasn’t trying to comment on youth sports and whether we’re getting too big with it, but one of the things that drew me to the project was that parent-child relationship. These kids are too young to carry their own clubs, and the tournament requires that you have a caddy, so the parents usually take on that role. They’re mostly daddy caddies, but a few moms get out there too. The kids we followed are some of the best in the world, and I was surprised as the degree to which they’re internally driven. Of course, some of the parents are pushing … They have to be introduced to the sport … The parents can put a club in their hands and help them, but you can’t make your kid play golf for six hours every day. You can’t make them world champions. If they don’t like it, they’re not going to excel.
What are some of the unique challenges of filming children?
Every kid was different. I definitely wanted to minimize how intimidating the film crew was so that they would almost forget we were there. Allan Kournikova (Anna’s little brother) adapted quickly and was very comfortable, but some of the other kids took a long time. We filmed three or four days with Jed Dy from the Philippines before he said a single a word. But we took our time, let them play with the camera, helped them feel like they were part of the process … By the end, they became like my little brothers and sisters, so I think the audience will adopt them too, feel for them as they go through the ups and downs. It’s a total roller coaster.
Did you have to endure a lot of temper tantrums?
These kids are so good. All of them play at or under par on really tough courses — the tees are moved up a bit, but it’s the same greens, same bunkers, same rough — so you almost forget that these are kids. This is a 7-year-old driving the ball 185 yards or eagling from the sand. So we had to find ways to remind you that these are kids, so those few times that they did break down or throw their clubs or start crying on the course actually helped us do that. I told the cinematographer to get the caddy or the bag or a tree in the frame while they’re hitting the ball so that the audience realizes, “Oh my God! They’re so tiny!”
We got to interview Jack Nicklaus about his experiences as a young golfer, and he told a story about how he hit a bad shot and threw his 9-iron, and his father just said, “We’re done. We’re never playing again if you’re going to do that.” And he remembered that and never did it again. What’s fun about The Short Game is you’re watching life lessons unfold in real time.
I have to ask: How did you make the Justin Timberlake connection?
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel saw an early premiere of the film at SXSW in Austin, and they were so excited about it that they wanted to get involved. Aside from being an incredible entertainer, Justin is a very talented golfer, and he and Jessica really responded to the film and its message. It’s hard to get people out to the theatres to watch documentaries, so we’re thrilled to have them on board as executive producers to help us get the word out. And if you keep your eyes peeled, Justin might make a surprise appearance with some of the kids from the film on some talk shows.
The trailer is beautifully shot … rare for a sports documentary. What did you want this film to look like and how did you achieve it?
I wanted to make a film that felt cinematic, but if you can’t plan for a shot, how do you make it beautiful? We decided to use mostly fixed length lenses, not giant zoom lenses, so there was a trade off: if you wanted a different shot, you either had to switch lenses or move yourself, so you risk losing moments in transition, but what we gained was a beautiful, lush film. With a crew of about 50 people — we even had a camera in a helicopter for incredible slow motion stuff — at times, it feels like a piece of art.
You filmed subjects all over the world. Is this a sign of the growing international popularity of golf? Do we have Tiger Woods to thank for that?
We followed eight golfers from five different countries and three states — South Africa, China, the Philippines, France, Florida, Texas and California. We got to meet all the kids in their hometowns and see them training for a year to prepare for Pinehurst, and you can quickly see how much the game is expanding across the globe. Golf is an incredible game because it transcends languages and cultures. In the opening parade that marks the start of the tournament, there are over 1,500 golfers from 54 different countries waving their flags. It’s an amazing site. Golf is becoming the world’s sport, and I think it’s fair to give some credit to Tiger for that happening.
What do you want people to take away from your film?
Golf is like life. We’ve heard that metaphor a lot, but it really is appropriate and relevant. The development of young minds and relationships in The Short Game can teach us a lot about how to play the game and how to approach life. The kids have two big blessings that I kept taking note of when we were filming. First: they have short memories. They forget about the last hole or the last shot (good or bad) a little easier, which is an important skill in golf and life. Second: they only see the flag. When we step up to the tee box, we see that big bunker in front and think we should layup and approach, but they want to go for it, grab the driver. They don’t see the bunkers and the trees and the water. They see where they want to go. As we get older, after we experience the hazards, they start growing. We can’t see anything but obstacles. The way these kids approach the game is a great reminder of how much you can succeed if you focus on where you want to go and not what’s in the way.