Ace of Clubs
01/14/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Sometimes teenagers have to make tough decisions. Take 17-year-old Ty Tryon, who last month rewrote golf history by qualifying to play on the professional tour but who will have to skip the prestigious Verizon Byron Nelson Tournament on May 9. The reason? "I have to go to my prom," he explains. "I'm in high school still. I want to have fun."
Such are the preoccupations of golf's newest phenom, a kid young enough to call Tiger Woods "sir." On Dec. 3 the gangly Tryon became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for the PGA Tour by shooting a 6-under-par 66 on the final day of Q-School, the pressure-packed six-day shootout that routinely makes grown men wilt. That Tryon coolly finished 23rd out of 1,200 entrants and won his tour card is "just unimaginable," says veteran CBS golf analyst Jim Nantz. "I doubt any of the greatest golfers of all time—Nicklaus, Nelson, Woods—could have made it through qualifying school at 17. It's mind-boggling."
But is it also cause for the kind of concern that attaches to young sports prodigies? After all, Tryon—an 11th grader whose favorite flicks are Caddyshack and Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore—has decided to skip college to tussle for paychecks with athletes twice his age. Heck, even Tiger was nearly 21 when he turned pro. "I fear seeing any kid who is so successful so young dominate his life with a sport," says Jack Nicklaus, who began his storied career at 21. "This is terrific for golf, but I hope he does finish high school and other things common to kids his age."
Not to worry, say those who know Ty, a solid student at Dr. Phillips High in Orlando. "His emotional maturity level is off the charts," maintains his father, Bill, 44, a former 2-handicapper who sparked his son's interest in golf. "He has a lot of self-esteem." David Leadbetter, the renowned swing guru who has tutored Tryon for 10 years, adds, "Most kids his age aren't ready. But Ty is special. He's got a 25-year-old head on a 17-year-old body." Tryon shrugs off turning pro as "basically the best move for me. Golf is what I want to do, so why not do it for a living?"
Why not, indeed? William A. Tryon IV was only 5 months old and confined to a rolling baby walker when he first swung a toy golf club. To keep their four children busy, his parents, Bill and Georgia, 43, who ran their own mortgage-lending business, built a bunker and putting green on their five-acre spread in Raleigh, N.C. The others—Johnny, now 15, Tray, 14, and Georgia Lee, 13—soon tired of the game. But Ty went on to win several junior events, including the Lucent Technologies Boys Championship, a junior golf major, when he was barely 15. "He had to be the youngest guy in the field and the smallest, because he hadn't grown," remembers Bill. "That's when we figured, 'This kid may have a career.' "
Six months earlier Tryon had enrolled in David Leadbetter's famous 140-student golf academy in Bradenton, not far from Orlando, where the Tryons moved in 1993. By the time he played in two PGA events as an amateur last year—finishing 39th at the Honda Classic in March and 37th at the B.C. Open in July—Tryon had grown to 5'11" and 165 lbs. and displayed Tigeresque power on his drives. Those impressive showings have already led to endorsement deals with Callaway golf clubs and Target that will reportedly earn him around $1 million a year.
Tryon, who turns 18 in June and vows he will somehow finish high school while on tour, used some of that spare cash to customize the 2001 blue Lexus IS 300 his parents gave him. He also installed so many Cybex and Magnum fitness machines in the garage of the family's two-story, five-bedroom home, that all the Tryon vehicles have been banished to the driveway. Yet so far he is keeping his newfound fortune and fame in perspective. "Ty's real balanced, real levelheaded," says his girlfriend, Lauren Bedford, 17, a schoolmate and Elite model. "He's a really neat guy."
When he plays in his first event as a pro in a few weeks, he'll also be the most scrutinized golfer since Tiger, whom he has met just once. But like Woods, Tryon appears at home in the glare that follows greatness. "When I have a big crowd watching, with cameras in a tournament, that's when I hit my best shot," he says. "I just love it, you know?"
Don Sider in Orlando