Across the bay at the Olympic Club in San Francisco this weekend, two teenagers took the media by storm, a couple tee shots away from the Pacific Ocean.
14-year-old Andy Zhang and 17-year-old Beau Hossler became darlings of the national media — one for his solid performance at the U.S. Open, the other for just being lucky enough to get there.
But really, the two are just famous so far for being young.
Zhang, the youngest player to compete in a U.S. Open since World War II, isn’t yet old enough to get his driver’s permit. The Chinese-born Zhang seized his chance when two veterans withdrew due to injuries, an unexpected twist of fate for a kid still struggling to prove himself as an amateur.
Hossler — four years younger than Tiger when he won his first major — quickly stole the spotlight from Zhang. The kid who still wears braces finished the open a shot behind Woods, a solid 29th. His future, by all optimistic projections, looks bright.
But for all the hype behind these two young golfers, be wary of looking too far ahead.
It only takes a look into the past to see how perilous and ambiguous the future can be.
Freddy Adu was supposed to be the future of American soccer. Selected by D.C. United at age 14 with the first pick of the MLS Draft, the kid earned Pele comparisons when he was barely a teenager.
Fast forward to the present day: A 23-year-old Adu has struggled to make it on the international stage, not even picked by an underwhelming Team USA for the 2010 World Cup.
Donald Young, a tennis player from Chicago, earned comparisons to John McEnroe as a teenager, turning pro as a 14-year-old in 2004 after a stellar amateur career — at one point the No. 1 amateur player in the world.
Now? Young has only recently risen to No. 38 in the world, and he’s hardly a household name. After cussing out the USTA on Twitter last year, it’s a surprise the one-time prodigy has resurrected his career at all.
We can’t get enough of our pubescent young talent. It’s why the Little League World Series has become a mainstay of ESPN each August, why bespectacled middle schoolers with awkward placards around their necks spell words most of us can’t even pronounce on national television.
We like to nab our sports prodigies young. Talent is supposed to project, so we project. Youth is a perpetual storyline, one that we can rely on to refill every year. College teams recruit high schoolers. Pro teams scout college athletes. The bigger the talent, the earlier we hear about talent.
We love seeing young faces good enough to compete. But we love seeing young faces good enough to win even more.
And we have a habit of judging prodigies before we can even decide if they’re prodigies or not.
It’s important to remember that for every flameout, there’s a late bloomer. Talent takes time to develop. For every Darko Milicic or Eddy Curry ungraciously labeled a bust, there’s a Brandon Weeden — the 28-year-old rookie quarterback with the Cleveland Browns. Guys like LeBron James and Bryce Harper, who excel as soon as they make the pros, are the exceptions.
Don’t expect Zhang and Hossler to become stars just yet. Away from the spotlight of a major championship, Zhang will have time to work on his game, so he can make the cut at his next major. Away from the bright lights, as the spotlights fade, two teenagers will, with proper coaching, improve. Give them time.
Young talent can succeed. But don’t expect too much right away.
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