Fifteen hundred golfers, 60 countries. six months preparation, one championship, and not a single athlete over the age of eight. Those stats form the bones of Netflix’s latest original venture (and first ever documentary), The Short Game. But the flesh that hangs off those bones has more to do with passion and personality than numbers.
The documentary chronicles the personal ups and downs of eight of those 1500 child athletes as they compete in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in North Carolina. While the content of The Short Game isn’t earth-shattering, it’s an enjoyable watch as it draws you into the lives of the people involved. Moreover, it manages to make the game of golf compelling by making it about the golfers, not the golf. It depicts the kids well — so well that you’ll find yourself rooting for every single one of them, because really, despite their extraordinary circumstances, they’re all just little kids with big dreams.
Non-golf fans, take note: You don’t have to love the game to love this movie. Yes, you will watch people stand for minutes lining up their putts. Yes, you will listen to accounts of driving practice and bogies. And yes, you will watch rigorous training routines, hear talk about core strength, and see more collared microfiber shirts than you could ever imagine. But the real stars of the film — the real impetus behind it altogether — are the kids. I challenge you not to love at least one of these kids. I challenge you not to be touched by Zama’s infectious smile and goofy demeanor, or by Kuang’s quiet, philosophical approach and measured confidence. They’re all painted so vividly that it’s easy to see these aren’t the heavily coached, obsessive robots you might have been expecting to see in a wunderkind documentary; despite their incredible skills (and despite their sometimes insanely competitive parents), they’re just kids. They want to play tag and build sand castles, and their good luck tokens are stuffed animals. They know everything there is to know about a sport, but they’re naïve about the rest of the world. They want their dads to marry Lady Gaga. They think farts are super funny. Their talent and drive and grueling training regimens haven’t marred them or made them wise beyond their years. They’re still playful and curious. This is a relief (at least it was on my part), and makes it a little easier to believe that these kids are still golfing because they want to, and not because their parents are making them.
Though there are definitely shades of “stage mom”-calibre parenting in the mix. In some parts, the film almost becomes a study of these kids’ folks as much as it is of the kids. Take Augustin’s mom, a woman who seems to think that her genetic line is one of unparalleled talent, and that her son is just one more in a long line of supreme geniuses. Her narcissistic ramblings and judgmental parenting style are more than a little off-putting. Similarly off-putting is Alexa’s dad. A heavily tanned, strongly opinionated pusher with a big mouth that never stops spewing advice on technique and motivation, he does more to illustrate his daughter’s patience than anything else. Then there’s Kuang’s dad, quietly watching from the sidelines, more bewildered by his son’s talent than anything else. Just as with the kids themselves, their parents represent a spectrum of human personalities that you can’t help but be intrigued by — whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em.
While the film is mainly about these kids, their personalities as athletes, and the parents who got them there, wider themes do come into play. Global perspectives of sport are touched upon, as we get glimpses of how different cultures pump themselves up to compete — praying, celebrating, diligently practicing… The financial realities of golf are also briefly acknowledged by one athlete’s father; a mention of the sacrifice and struggle this level of competition requires for many people. I couldn’t help but think of all the kids who would’ve wanted to be in Amari or Sky’s shoes if it wasn’t so cost-prohibitive. Golf has a lot of elitist stereotypes attached to it for a reason, and these 7- and 8-year-olds aren’t exempt from that. Though really, the mention of finances is brief, and then the film goes quickly back to glossing over the class-specific nature of the sport.
As a documentary of not much consequence, The Short Game does a good job of giving you an entertaining look at what competitive sports are all about: the athletes. In this case, some rather charismatic, incredibly young athletes. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but after getting to know these kids, you just might cry when you see how proud the champions are. Also, there’s a kitten!
The Short Game premieres across all Netflix platforms on December 12th.