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The Next Best

The competition is increasing among junior golfers, with course records among the first casualties.

April 27, 1999|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The topic of conversation is, of course, golf.

Any time Ron Won, Brian Sinay and Nico Bollini get together, there really isn't much else to talk about.

Oh, sure, the subject might switch to cars or girls or music or whatever else high school boys talk about these days. But only momentarily.

There are always plenty of golf stories to tell.

Play as much as they do, and that's what happens. Theirs is a world consumed by the sport. The popular phrase found on bumper stickers and T-shirts "Golf is Life" does not apply to players such as these.

For them, life is golf.

They are among a generation of golfers riding the wake of Tiger Woods, who put junior golf on the map.

Won and Sinay, both from Irvine, and Bollini, of Yorba Linda, are among the nation's elite boys in their age group. Candie Kung of Fountain Valley and Angela Rho of Fullerton are among the top girls.

Theirs is a generation flooding golf courses and driving ranges across the nation, dreaming of success. But players like Kung, Won, Bollini, Rho and Sinay have managed to separate themselves from the pack and achieve it.

All are nationally ranked. Kung is the No. 1 girl and Rho is No. 17. Won is ranked No. 10 while Bollini is 33rd and Sinay is 130th.

A borderline-obsessive work ethic, an admirable devotion and a ruthless determination have enabled them to rise above a playing field that has seen an enormous increase of players and sharp rise in quality of play.

But though hard work may be the key ingredient, much more goes into developing into a championship-level golfer. Among them, is the willingness to be immersed into a world where golf is everything, leaving little room for anything else.

"My life is sleeping, eating, studying and playing golf," said Sinay, a junior at University High who won the Southern Section individual title as a freshman.

"Mostly playing golf, though. I don't know how anyone could be good if it wasn't. You have to do that to keep up. If you don't, you're not going to be good."

For top-level players, playing and practicing are only the beginning.

Sinay admits to always having a club handy at home, just in case he comes up with a new swing thought. Kung likes to scour the golf Internet sites, looking for information on her competitors and favorite professional players.

Bollini, who says the magical run by Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters is both inspirational and motivational, watches a videotape copy of the tournament on a regular basis, and Rho says she reads about golf as much as she can.

"There are certain ingredients that those kids have, and I don't know what they are," said Kevin Ostroske, director of junior golf for the Southern California PGA. "They have the ability to put things aside after school, be energized and motivated to hit balls, then come home and read the rule book."

Those intangible ingredients are easily explained by the golfers.

Sinay says patience is key.

"Wait for the good shot--it'll come," he said. "If I'm two over or three over, I can stay patient, I can wait it out. For the most part, if you stay patient, you can save two or three strokes every round."

Bollini points to confidence.

"It is the most important thing," he said. "If you don't believe in yourself, then don't bother playing."

Whatever the mental aspects, they are translating to a skyrocketing level of talent among today's junior players. Course records throughout Southern California are getting lower and so are the ages of the players setting them.

Last summer, for example, high school players set men's and women's course records at Coto de Caza.

Henry Liaw, then 12, shot 58 at Alhambra Municipal Golf Course. Kung shot a women's course record 65 at the SCGA Members Club in the CIF/SCGA championships.

When John Ray Leary of Culver City, 17, set the course record at Coto De Caza last summer, it lasted a day. John Lepak of La Habra Heights, also 17, broke it in the same tournament.

"There are some unbelievable scores out there," Won said. "It's like, jeez, records aren't supposed to be broken that fast. They're supposed to last a little longer."

Winning scores at tournaments across the nation are getting lower and lower, causing concern among even the top players.

"When I first started out, the winning scores were in the 80s," Rho said. "Now you have to shoot even par. At national-level tournaments you have to shoot under par."

Steven Hamblin, executive director of the American Junior Golf Assn., recalls a mother calling to complain after a tournament last summer when she noticed her son's name omitted from the top 20 scores. Her son shot par.

"I told her even par is tied for 39th right now," Hamblin said.

He said the top scores aren't necessarily lower than the scores Woods and Phil Mickelson shot during their junior careers, but that there are just more players shooting those scores.

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