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Friday, January 4, 2013
How far will Latanna Stone go? Time will tell

By Melissa Isaacson

It is a clichéd question. But just as sure as "My, look how you've grown," it is one no kid can avoid. And though it is easy to forget, Latanna Stone is still a kid.

"So, what do you want to do when you grow up?" she was asked.

"One word. Golf," Stone replied and then, just in case you didn't catch it the first time, "Just one word. I love golf."

There should be little doubt. Just three months past her 11th birthday and four months after she became the youngest golfer to compete in the USGA Women's Amateur Championship, Stone is more committed to the game than ever, say her parents, Michael and Yuen, and her coach, Brian Mogg.

"I love her moxie, I love her panache, I love her competitive spirit," Mogg said. "Ultimately, it's why she's so good at such a young age. She's feisty, she wants to beat you, she dreams big. ... The U.S. Amateur for her was not a pinnacle but a steppingstone. She's a lot like Tiger [Woods] in that Tiger's success has always made him hungrier. I've always admired that about him, and watching Latanna at tournaments, she wants to beat these girls, and when she doesn't, it makes her want to beat them more. She's ready to take it to the next level."

Comparing Latanna to the greatest golfer of his generation was no slip of the tongue for Mogg. Her father does not shy away from the T-word word, either. He has read and reread "Training a Tiger," authored by Tiger's father, Earl, and said he loved it.

"I use it as a reference," Michael Stone said. "A lot of the information is very valuable, if nothing else, just for raising your children. Is Latanna as talented as Tiger was at 11 years old? Yes. Will she be as talented on the female side of the game? Absolutely, the possibility is there. I hate to use Tiger Woods as a comparison because he's great. ... But certainly she has the mental and physical ability to play at that level."

And the little girl from Valrico, Fla., a bedroom community in Tampa, is actually not that little anymore. Standing 5-foot-2 when she shot a 2-under 70 to take medalist honors at the Women's Amateur qualifier in early August, she is now 5-4 and has gained five pounds, a growth spurt that has included progress in virtually every facet of her game.

"She has probably made more improvement from August until now than she has the last year and a half, two years combined," Mogg said. "I'm really impressed by that."

Her mechanics are just one element, however, of a very specific strategy. Michael said his favorite part of the late Earl Woods' book was the transition from training Tiger to play as a junior to training him for the PGA Tour. That process, which included a good deal of amateur and junior tournament play, instilled in Tiger much of the confidence he carried into his pro career, and it is an ingredient both Stone and Mogg said is crucial for Latanna.

"One thing I admire about Tiger," Mogg said, "is that his dad didn't have him play up. He got accustomed to winning and dominating. If [Latanna] gets into a pro event, fine, but is she ready for the pro tour now? Not even close.

"Michelle Wie was wicked talented, but her parents advanced her so fast. She should have learned how to win and taken that confidence from the amateur level to the pro level and do the same thing."

Among her slew of records, Wie, at age 10, became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship and win the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. Two years later, she was the youngest to qualify for an LPGA Tour event.

Now 23 and a 2012 graduate of Stanford, Wie turned pro at 15 but played only when given a sponsor's exemption, as the minimum-age requirement for LPGA membership is 18. She later gained notoriety for trying to play PGA Tour events, but as an LPGA member the past three years, she has struggled with consistency, winning two tournaments as a pro (the last in 2010) with only one top-10 finish this year.

"You have to teach a child to win at a young age," Michael Stone said. "And then once you win, it becomes easier and easier. You have to develop their mind and their confidence. [Wie] is now a complete wreck out there on the golf course who should have won 40 times already."

His daughter's mental toughness is already a strength.

"She has this incredible concentration," he said. "She doesn't get rattled. She actually enjoys pressure. If I put a basketball in her hand, it would be the same thing. Some people just have a natural ability both mentally and physically.

"I see lots and lots of great girl golfers, but put them under any kind of pressure and they start crying. That's how they release the pressure. With Latanna, she gets stronger. She's not a multitasker. She takes the task at hand and does what she needs to do, which is very similar to the way Tiger is. She's very focused, and if she likes to do something, she likes to do it best."

Gary Gilchrist, who founded and runs a golf academy in Central Florida that has produced 23 LPGA Tour members including Wie, praised Stone's talents but provided a cautionary tale.

"There's definitely something special about her attitude and the way she thinks; her golf IQ is very high," said Gilchrist, who coached Wie from age 12 to 14. "[But] if you go watch U.S. kids, there are so many of them [with similar abilities]. The new equipment is going to make young kids really good ... stronger and stronger. Also, they're so childlike at that age, they don't really think about pressure, they just go out and play."

Calling Wie "one of the greatest talents of all time," he agreed her career was derailed, though not necessarily for all the same reasons Michael Stone and Mogg suggested.

"When students are young, it needs to be full of fun and not so much technical [instruction]," he said. "Michelle had a million different lessons, [her parents and later coaches] were changing her swing all the time and what happens with that is that it affects your short game.

Playing golf is beautiful ... and so is having a beautiful personality. The last one is appearance -- being strong on and off the golf course.

-- Latanna Stone

"Sure, she could've played more junior tournaments, absolutely, but she was very advanced at that point. I don't think Michelle ever played the game to win; she played because she loved to. This girl [Stone] speaks a lot about winning, which is fine, but what about when she stops winning? Right now, there's no such thing in her head as consequences. When she hits 14 and 15, that's when it comes.

"There are many different levels you have to go through, and the game will test your motives," Gilchrist added. "If she decides it's about what the game is going to give her, god bless her. But you have to figure out that golf is bigger than you are. If she can stay childlike in her mindset but more logical in her thinking, that's going to be big."

Showing an interest in golf at age 2 while watching her father practice at home, Latanna was given a sawed-off broomstick and later a plastic club with which to play while still in diapers. She took her first golf lesson two years later and has already won more than 100 tournaments.

Her father, a service technician for financial institutions who met his wife while on the job 13 years ago and helped raise her two sons from a previous relationship, often finds himself having to defend their commitment to Latanna's career, which has included enlisting the help of a publicist as well as a mental conditioning coach.

For the past three years, Latanna has been home-schooled by her mother, who also works as a barber, but the decision was not related to golf, they emphasize. Rather, it was a family decision reached because of dissatisfaction with the private school Latanna was attending and after they went to a home-school convention.

"There's a lot of jealousy," Michael Stone said of the negative scrutiny they have received. "People think I must have done something magical to make all this happen, but they don't look at all the hard work and time put into this. ... Every child is different. You have to learn your child and what motivates them, and the way you do that is to spend time with them. That's how they grow and how they develop."

Admittedly, Stone said he learned those lessons the hard way through his older two children from his first marriage. "When I raised the first two, I worked all the time and traveled and didn't have time for them," he said. "Now they don't have time for me, and I told my wife, 'If we have a child, it's going to be different. I'm really going to spend time with her, do everything possible.'"

What particularly bothers Stone is any perception that his daughter is a so-called meal ticket.

"I hear that so much: 'You'll never work again for the rest of your life,'" he said with a laugh. "I started paying Social Security in 1972. That's how long I've been working. I don't need my daughter to support me. I know how to work and make my own money. You get tired of stupid comments like that."

Latanna's parents were standout athletes growing up -- Michael, in baseball, and Yuen, who grew up in Thailand, in soccer and volleyball -- and said their own upbringing is another reason for their dedication to their daughter's passion.

"I had the ability to play at the major league level, but my parents didn't support me as an athlete," Michael said. "They believed I should get a 9-to-5 job. I want to give our daughter every opportunity to succeed."

"Latanna's goal is to play in the LPGA, and I'd do anything possible to support her wish and, basically, we're just being normal parents," Yuen added. "Little kids have big dreams, and we're just helping her fulfill her dreams. When I was young, I didn't have those opportunities for my parents to support me and my dreams."

Latanna, who has played about 40 tournaments in 2012, said a spot on the LPGA Tour "hopefully won't be far away. I have a lot of goals but that's my main one. I know for a fact I can do it."

The Stones' only hope, however, is for the minimum age rule to be changed, but Gilchrist doesn't see that happening.

"At the end of the day, I think [you'd have] these girls on tour at 16 and not see them at 19 because of their maturity level," he said.

Mogg said bluntly that "raw odds" work against Stone becoming a future star.

"It has nothing to do with Latanna, but only about .0001 percent make it," he said. "It's fantastic she's so far ahead of the curve, but we have no way of knowing how a kid's body is going to mature, what will happen when boys come around. So it's hard to say who's going to make it and be successful.

"You have to have something different and special. Latanna, at the moment, is way ahead, but it will be more important where she is at 15."

In the meantime, Latanna knows she can walk away from golf at any time, but she is showing no signs of that for now.

"Golf's my life, but I'm not going to leave anything else out," she said. "It's really half my life, because my friends and family come first. I'm pretty flexible with golf. I worked so hard to get this far ... but it doesn't get in the way. I really look at myself as a normal kid who just plays golf but a unique kid because of all the accomplishments I've had."