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Short Game : 4-Year-Old Turns Golf Into Mere Child's Play


PHILADELPHIA — Nestled among his bookshelf collection of movies such as "The Lion King" and "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles" is 4-year-old Kurt Gibson Jr.'s favorite video: John Daly's "Grip It And Rip It."

In the bedroom of his South Philadelphia rowhouse, a poster of Nick Price and Raymond Floyd shares wall space with the Tasmanian Devil, and back issues of Golf Digest are scattered on the floor with his crayons.

He likes watching cartoons, collecting toy dinosaurs and playing with his Sega Genesis. But he loves playing golf. He will be 5 next month and has been playing since he was 2. At nine months, he was swinging his father's irons--in his walker.

"No matter where he's at, he'd rather be golfing," said Kim Gibson, his mother. "He's totally obsessed. I can't explain it."

Franklin D. Roosevelt Park, an 18-hole public course across from Veterans Stadium, is Kurt's home away from home. He hits the links five, six and seven times a week, usually in the evenings when the course isn't crowded and after he's had his afternoon nap.

"Everybody's nice here," said Kurt Jr., munching on a pre-game snack of potato chips and a Snickers. "It's cool."

His father, a 32-year-old construction worker who began playing the game himself just four years ago, is Kurt's caddy. An on-the-job accident damaged his wrist so severely that he can no longer play, but he says he's not living vicariously through his only child.

"I am not pushing him to play. I swear I'm not one of those dads," said Kurt Gibson Sr. "He just loves the game--we have to drag him off the course when it gets dark, kicking and screaming."

Young Kurt shoots in the low 50s over nine holes and rarely scores worse than a triple bogey--not bad for a 3 1/2-foot-tall preschooler who is still years away from fitting into a pair of spikes. For now, he wears sneakers, jeans, and, as etiquette demands, a shirt with a collar.

He usually tees off with a 3-wood (the driver is too heavy) and holds the club with a 10-finger baseball grip. In other aspects, his swing is textbook--knees bent, big backswing, weight shift, follow through. And he hits from the men's tees.

"Kurt's never had a lesson, but I wouldn't touch that swing," said Jack O'Neil, the pro at FDR. "He learns from his mistakes, has great balance, can keep score and handles his own club selection."

"Little Kurt" may be able to whack a Titleist 125 yards down the center of a fairway, but he still has a thing or two to learn about safely operating a golf cart.

When he gets behind the wheel, an impish smile lights up his face, his curly brown hair flows in the wind and he giggles wildly, steering the cart through puddles and over rocks. A break from golfing etiquette, but a refreshing one for "Big Kurt."

"It feels good to see him act like a kid," the father said. "Sometimes I kind of forget he's only 4--especially when my friends are calling him and asking him to join their foursome."

Between games, he hones his swing in front of the TV with a plastic club, wearing only a pair of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers briefs. Kurt also grooves his putting stroke with a fancy ball-return machine and plays golf CD-ROMs on the computer. Kurt owns several sets of clubs, including one donated by Gregg Jefferies of the Phillies.

His favorite clubs--a junior starter set his father trimmed down to size with pipecutters--were stolen along with the family car in August.

"We got our Buick back and Kurt's golf bag, but not his little clubs," Kim Gibson said. "We were in pretty bad shape, but Gregg and some other nice people heard about it on the news and helped us out."

With his family's help, Kurt is in good shape off the course, too.

He has an agent, an e-mail address and has starred in a local TV commercial for golf shops. Kurt has business cards, prints autographs and is probably the youngest member of the U.S. Golf Association. He has played with Payne Stewart, Chip Beck, Phil Mickelson and other pros at various charity tournaments and seminars.

Whether Kurt is the next Tiger Woods or just a fidgety 4-year-old who can sink a 20-foot putt and par a 190-yard par 3, won't be known for many years. But for now, when most of the youngsters in the Gibsons' working-class neighborhood are playing stickball or touch football, one boy is playing golf in his underwear with John Daly.

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