It's 4:30 a.m. in Lancaster, Calif., a desert town 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Metal bars cover the front doors of the houses along Avenue K4, and the only sign of life is a single light radiating from an open garage. Ten-year-old Kristopher Stiles emerges groggy-eyed, looking like a pint-size Tour professional: pressed beige slacks and white, long-sleeved Under Armour beneath a white polo. He clambers into the back of the family's Toyota Camry. A few steps behind, his dad, Kenji, lugs a Titleist tour bag and dumps it into the trunk. As the car rolls into the predawn darkness, Kenji cranks up "I'm Different," by the rapper 2 Chainz. Kris curls up under his Winnie-the-Pooh blanket and drifts off.
The snoozing youngster — 4-foot-11, 100 pounds after a big meal — learned to play golf at age 5 on the family's Nintendo Wii. By 6 he had traded the console for clubs and was playing real golf competitively, and successfully. According to Kenji, of the estimated 150 tournaments Kris has entered, he's won about a third of them. (He has the trophies and medals to prove it.) He claimed the California State title for his age division three years running, at 8, 9 and 10. YouTube videos of his long, fluid swing are mesmerizing.
This morning, for the second consecutive day, father and son are driving 90 miles to The Valley course at Moreno Valley Ranch for the Southern California PGA Junior Golf Tour's Bridgestone Spring Series Championship. As they veer into the parking lot, Kenji rouses Kris. The kid shuffles into the clubhouse, eats three bites of pancakes, and then heads out to the range to warm up for the final round. At 1 under par, he's in a familiar position: atop the leaderboard.
This is not a story about the next Tiger Woods. There will never be another Tiger Woods, just as there will never be another Arnold Palmer or Walter Hagen. However, there are parallels between Kris and 10-year-old Tiger, and the similarities go beyond the obvious fact that Kris is African-American. Kris lives just 90 minutes north of Cypress, the Los Angeles suburb in which Woods grew up. He plays many of the same junior events that Woods did. And he has impressed some of the same teachers and tournament officials whom Woods dazzled.
Jerry Herrera, the head professional at Azusa Greens C.C., just east of Los Angeles, and the president of the San Gabriel Junior Golf Program, had a front-row seat to Tiger's rise through the junior ranks. His take on Kris's swing? "Remarkable," says Herrera, who has analyzed Kris's technique on video. "The sound of the contact, the same repetitive motion with the shots he hits — it's Tigeresque."
Lofty praise, though Kris doesn't exactly soak it up. "People want to compare him to Tiger all the time," Kenji says. "But Kris hates it."
Kris says he soured on Woods when he learned about the World No. 1's extramarital affairs on SportsCenter. When pressed to elaborate, Kris says it's "because of all the mistakes he's made, and messing with some of the women in his life." The youngster draws his inspiration from other sources. A framed picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs in his bedroom. Says Kris, "I think he inspired me to play golf because I knew that they wouldn't let colored people play."
Overt discrimination has largely vanished from the game, but 18 years after Woods's arrival on the PGA Tour, golf's elite ranks are still profoundly non-reflective of America's racial mix. Access is a roadblock. So are economics. "You can drop your kid off at a basketball court or a football field," says Kenji, 40, "but there's no free practice in golf."
Sixty dollars per month covers Kris's green fees at two local courses, and that's just the start of the golf expenses for Kenji and his wife La Trease, 40, a receptionist for a health-care provider. (Kenji stays at home to tend to Kris and his 6-year-old sister, Ashlie.) Cart fees are $14. Range balls run $6 to $9 per bucket. Two weekend tournaments cost about $100 in entry fees. Lessons are $75 a pop. That adds up to roughly $300 a month, which Kenji says he and La Trease can afford. Traveling to national events, though, can be a stretch. Kris has competed four times in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championships in Pinehurst, N.C., twice finishing in the top 10 and once in the top 20. But last year the Stiles family couldn't fit the Pinehurst trip into their budget.
Kris is too young to worry about money. He doesn't spend every waking hour sweating his swing, either. His favorite superhero is Spider-Man, his favorite video game is Madden NFL 13, and his idea of what he calls "chillin'" is watching Disney Channel's Crash & Bernstein while eating a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. Place a golf club in his hands, though, and he's all business.
"The toughest thing for me to remember is that he's 10," says Marshall Patterson, the director of instruction at Rancho Vista G.C. in Palmdale, Calif., who started coaching Kris when the prodigy was 5. "I don't think I've had a more serious kid. One day he hit this perfect shot, right down the line, and I said to him, 'You know you can smile, Kris,' and he says, 'I don't smile on the golf course, because every time I'm out here I want to treat it like a tournament.' So I say, 'How about this — I won't smile, either. We'll do our work and when we get back and it's done, we'll smile.' He says, 'Deal.'"
The pact seems to be working. Kris won five of the nine tournaments he played on the SCPGA junior circuit last spring. Over the summer he defended his title at the U.S. Kids Golf California State Championship, winning the 10-year-old division by a cool six strokes.
To help with Kris's golf expenses, Kenji has mailed fund-raising requests to about 100 wealthy African-Americans he found online. His return thus far: $50, not enough to cover his postage costs. Kenji had more success raising $3,000 from family and friends to take Kris to compete at Pinehurst in 2012. "We got there the night before the tournament," he says. "But the kid who won got there a week early to play practice rounds." After the event, Kris's competitors invited him to hang out and play at the resort's pool. "He had a blast," Kenji says. "And then we drove back to Motel 6."
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?