Looking out across the gray coastal shards of Fife, Scotland, high up on the 17th hole at Kinghorn Golf Club, the golfer tees his ball. He’s dressed in all blue and white, the colors and form of St. Andrew’s Cross, looking like something of a Highlands astronaut. And it’s fitting, too, because he fully intends to drive the ball to the moon. Staring down the green as though daring it to avoid the thump of his ball, he takes the club back like a coil and mightily releases, like a spring, swing after swing after swing.
He drives it as straight as 6 o’clock nearly every time. He plays consistently precise wedges tight to the hole. He rolls in 60-foot putts. Riding a spray of sand, his ball shoots up toward the hole, crawling to within inches. That’s fine, leave him a tap-in — he’ll broom it in one-handed like a Tour player and move on.
This could be, you’d think if you saw him, the next Tiger Woods. Nay, he could make the world forget Tiger ever existed. But wait. In fact, wait 10 years or so. Because this golfer, with his icy confidence and his dream shots, with his disarming good looks and his champion’s stare, is all of 6 years old.
Reece Matthew Campbell Murphy, aka Tiny Woods, with nearly as many words in his name as he’s logged years in his life, did not come to the game by watching his father, like Jack Nicklaus or Woods. Nor did Reece learn from a teacher or a swing coach or a summer camp. Rather, Reece learned the game by watching his father toggle the controls to Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2001 on Sony PlayStation. A video game. At 18 months, he was mimicking the characters with a ruler and a plastic golf club, both of which he held crosshanded (left hand under right), just as he still holds the club for every swing.
This tiny Tiger’s introduction to the game doesn’t conjure fairy-tale visions of a young boy putting on pocked greens, learning organically with the land, like young Seve Ballesteros on a moonlit beach. But neither does the robotic squadron of Nike-visored, Eccoshod fairway rats at phenom mills like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where children inhale swing dynamics and exhale childhood as their clucking parents pace driving ranges, having their swing thoughts for them.
Steven Campbell, 32, wouldn’t fit in on that Bradenton range with all the Lacoste polos because he isn’t a Golf Dad at all. He didn’t even start playing the game until Reece did. Unemployed as a result of complications from muscular dystrophy, Campbell occupies himself as Reece’s caddie, and it’s quite a thing to see this man — at times hunched in gargoyle stances — wheeling this child’s trolley, picking up his errant balls, playing a shadow role in the life of one who is barely tall enough to cast his own.
So it hasn’t been conventional, the wooing of this little boy by the game. All the same, there’s no shortage of the dream factor. Reece goes to bed each night wearing his golf glove. His teddy bear is a 7-iron. When he wakes, it is not to Saturday morning cartoons. It’s to a pre-breakfast putting and chipping competition with his father.
Here at Kinghorn, on a Scottish day that smokes itself like a thick cigar and paints its plumes across sooty skies, the 4-foot-tall boy drives a ball clean across a canyon. His swing is as artless as a first kiss and as clumsily unsure, but with the trajectory of Euclid’s dream parabola, the end result is there on the green: the ball was launched by a stick, the stick was swung by a child, and the child comes from the school of Holy S—, I Can’t Believe It’s a Kid.
Is this truly just a case of talent stretching its strings across the body of this little moppet and playing a tune that it takes most men entire lifetimes to learn, let alone master? His club wobbles on his backswing, yes, but imagine an ant swinging a toothpick. This is a game that’s so much larger than the people who play it, and here is a 6-year-old sculpting shots, chipping a line of balls like a fast-action BB gun, not even looking where they land (within inches of the hole). Like a trick pony, he hits wedges smack into baseball gloves from 25 yards away, and Reece is kick-up-his-kiddie-feet-at-home in bunkers that can tuck him in and swallow him whole.
His is a talent as natural as a weed. But here’s a weed you want to water. And because you’d be stupid (wouldn’t you?) not to cultivate it, his parents have let Jane Connachan, a teaching professional and former player on the Ladies European Tour, watch and analyze him. They play on Saturdays; she hasn’t won yet.
“I can’t think of anyone his age who can play the shots he plays, and I work with a lot of kids,” Connachan says. “I have one boy of 9, who skillwise is similar, but still nowhere near Reece.”
Alan Murdoch, director of golf at Edinburgh’s Kings Acre Golf Course, who coaches Scotland’s top amateurs, has also watched Reece and believes that the boy has more talent than both Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods — combined — at his age. “I’ve been coaching for over 20 years and remember seeing both Wie and Woods when they were young. I was impressed by them but not as much as I was when watching Reece on the range.”
Reece has been offered a free year at the Colin Montgomerie Links Golf Academy at Turnberry, but his parents aren’t so sure they want someone toying with his swing. Connachan agrees. “I think that if anyone were to change it, it would be destructive rather than constructive,” she says. “He holds it as a lefthander would and he swings like John Daly, but he’s absolutely perfect. He does eve ry thing right. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. And he ain’t broke.”
Formal training aside for the time being, Reece plays every day before school, after school, all day and into the night, weather permitting, on his outdoor putting green or into his net. Is it play or work?
On the ticker for the latter: his allowance is contingent on his practicing every day on or off the course, and playing round with either his father or Connachan on alternate days.
Ask Reece if he’s going to be a great golfer one day: “I’m already a great golfer,” he says in his baby brogue, head cocked like anyone who thinks otherwise is mad. Ask him who he wants to beat most and the answer is inevitable: “Tiger Woods.” And what will he say when he meets his nicknamesake? “I will ask him who his favorite Power Ranger is, and then, when my muscles are big, I shall show him how to zoom the ball to the moon.”
As happens to the extraordinary among the ordinary in our age, Reece has become a business. He’s made eight television appearances, including a segment on ESPN’s Cold Pizza, and has his own web site: tiny woods.co.uk. He even has a signed letter of commendation from Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has adopted idiosyncratic tags too. Before striking, he points to where he’s going to send the ball the way Babe Ruth once did. This is something his parents have taught him, to inculcate the talent, to brand the product. As Reece points his small arm high up and toward the faraway green, his father says, “Who used to do that, Reece? The Great who?” After a few more prods, Reece answers: “The Great…Bambino!”
His parents can insist until the sheep come home that the child wants all this for himself, but, at a certain point, a child will get bored, grow lazy, pick up a Lego set and act his age. A child like Reece, however, would be upsetting a whole country if he flushed his talent down the potty-trainer. Still, when asked if he ever thinks it’d be more fun to just drop the clubs and play with his soldiers, there’s an uncoached look in his eye, and with the look comes an unmeasured answer: “No, I just wanna play golf.”
Even if his parents aren’t forcing this life on Reece, a world he has yet to meet is forcing its will upon him. Like a child actor, he’s an untrod commodity, a raw mold, or, more aptly, a fresh lump of Play-Doh. And though the potential to become something hotly awaited (the next Tiger Woods) is possible, so, too, is the flip side of early genius. Reece could very well burn out as fast as a candle in the rain, or worse, ebb slowly and weather the sort of chaff that attends a store owner who keeps his “Grand Opening” banners hanging a year after the grand opening.
The fact is, this boy has yet to taste what lies in the salty-sweet folds of adolescence, and there’s a long and forked road between Play-Doh and Playboy. Even if you were intent on raising a shell with a godly swing, you can’t fast-forward him to the climax. So very much can, will, and should happen in between.
And who knows? At the 2018 Open Championship, on some magic Scottish field, by the wind-whisked seas of his homeland, Reece Matthew Campbell Murphy may beat a potbellied Tiger Woods for a title the latter will have gotten used to conceding. Or, in that parallel universe where we all vacation, in a darkly inviting Edinburgh pub, Reece might be the good-looking kid serving you the beer-battered chicken fingers you’ll later wish you declined. Just like you, though, he might still play on the weekends.
THE CHASE IS ON
Tiger who? Thus far Reece has kept pace
Tiger: Age 3, shoots 48 on a par-18 9-hole course.
Reece: Age 3, shoots 49 on a par-32 9-hole course.
T: Age 5, appears on ABC-TV’s That’s Incredible
R: Age 5, flown to New York City for a spot on ESPN’s Cold Pizza
T: Age 6, makes his first birdie, on a 91-yard par 3
R: Age 4, drops his first birdie, on a 150-yard par 3
T: Age 6, makes his first hole-in-one (and his second)
R: Age 5, makes his first ace
A quick look at what makes Tiny Tiger tick
Residence: Newmills, Dunfermline, Scotland
Born: March 21, 2000
Weight: 44 lbs
Longest drive: 251 yards
Lowest tournament score: 44 on 9 holes in Tom Lehman Trophies (the biggest junior event in UK)
Favorite colors: pink and white
Hobbies: Sony PlayStation, toy soldiers
Bedtime: 8:30 p.m.
Favorite course: The Old Course, St. Andrews
Player he idolizes: Tiger Woods
Player he wants to dethrone: Tiger Woods
How much his parents spend on his golf annually: “A lot.”
Year he can legally drink: 2018
Daily allowance: 50 pence (92 cents), contingent on his daily practice
Salary he could make in the year 2018 if he’s as good as Tiger: A lot. (first prize at 2018 British Open estimated at $2,786,981.)
Showing one’s talent early is either a precursor of excellence or a oneway ticket to premature disaster. Here’s how some other child prodigies fared …
The co-founder of cubism began producing notable art at 8 years old. His work can be divided into phases, as different periods of his life are reflected in the mood of his artwork.
At 15 he was a grand-master and became the first American World Chess Champion in 1972. He has only played one competitive match since 1975.
This musical prodigy had composed two dance pieces for piano at 7 years old. Became a renowned musician, composer and conductor by his mid-teens.
Entered Tufts University when he was 11 and became one of the most influential mathematicians in U.S. history, though his name never helped him score any dates.
A doctor at 15! Sadly it didn’t last. The prodigal MD-aka Neil Patrick Harris-now plays Barney Stinson in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.