Latanna Stone, 10, playing in Women's Amateur
VALRICO, Fla. -- The junior golf banner over her doorway bore no unicorns and was devoid of bedazzlement. And the sign below did not say that this was Latanna's room or that boys should beware. Instead, it reminded the occupant to "Stay Over the Ball."
Typical 10-year-olds are rarely so transfixed with golf. Then again, there's nothing typical about Latanna Stone or her golf game. Stone became the youngest U.S. Women's Amateur Championship qualifier in July when she shot a 2-under 70 and took medalist honors at regional qualifying in Wellington, Fla. The field was dominated by teens and collegians trying to earn a bid to the amateur, which begins Monday at The Country Club in Cleveland.
"We went down there just to try and get an experience. We had no idea ..." her father and caddie, Mike Stone, said. "I knew she was capable of posting a decent score. I didn't think she would post the lowest score."
Precocious both as a golfer and a little girl, Stone, who is 4-foot-8 and weighs less than 100 pounds, is supremely confident. She seems completely unflustered by what should be a memorable, perhaps career-shaping weekend.
According to Golf Week, Michelle Wie qualified for the 2000 Women's Amateur Public Links at a little younger age than Stone, who turns 11 in September. Allisen Corpuz is the youngest to qualify for a USGA event (the 2008 WAPL) at 10 years, 3 months.
While phenoms are a rare commodity in golf, Stone's accomplishment cannot be discounted, said her previous coach, Charlotta Sorenstam, who was with her from age 6 to 9.
"She's the youngest. That says a lot," said Sorenstam, who teaches at the Orlando-area ANNIKA Academy, founded by her sister and LPGA legend. "Ten is a low number, but I don't think she acts like a 10-year-old. I think she acts more like a 14-, 15-year-old and I think that's her strength. I just hope she has the right attitude coming into the event. It's an experience. It's a learning curve for her. I think she will do well, but I hope she has those goals in mind rather than winning the whole thing."
Stone's goal for the tournament?
"I want to get into match play," she said. To do it, she will need to be among the lowest 64 scorers of 156 entered after two rounds of stroke play.
Stone's favorite thing about golf?
"Everything. But my mental game is the strength of everything."
What does she need to work on?
"I don't think I really need to work on anything right now, but I'm just preparing to go higher."
The winner of more than 100 tournaments -- most in and around Florida, and including the 2009 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship -- Stone aspires to play in the LPGA. It's a realistic goal, according to Sorenstam.
"Who knows if she will become the best, but she can, definitely, if she still loves the game, when it's time to turn pro," she said. "I think she has the potential to do well on the Tour, definitely."
Sorenstam said as a pupil Stone was "a little stubborn, which is a good attribute because she'll never give up," and came with a strength and "good physics" that made her a strong, accurate shot.
Aptitude at a young age is no indicator of future success, Sorenstam said, but it doesn't hurt.
"Maybe it is a little easy for now, even though she has worked hard," Sorenstam said. "I think for her to maintain winning, she's going to have to put the effort in a little bit extra on the side because it won't be as easy to win anymore. But I don't think it's an indication you will win when you're older, but it doesn't hurt to have the knowledge how to win on the golf course when it comes down to the last hole."
Sorenstam said in their first two years together: "I did not see that drive because it kind of came easy to her, but the last two [years] we worked, yeah, definitely, she grew up mentally, really quick and I could see she had changed the attitude."
Sorenstam said she still communicates with her former pupil occasionally via text or Facebook and misses the Thai food her mother would bring during lessons. She also recalled a few meetings between her sister and Stone -- "Latanna is kind of a hugger," she said, "so she was around my leg and when she saw Annika, she wanted to do the same thing, so it was kind of cute."
Stone is now coached every few months by Brian Mogg in Orlando, Fla. She also has separate mental and fitness coaches that she sees every couple of months. Stone, who is in sixth grade, is home-schooled with her three half-brothers and a half-sister -- none of whom play golf. ("I love them anyway," she quipped.) School is "right here," she said, tapping her green laptop on the kitchen table that faces the 16th hole of their neighborhood course.
Stone's father, a service technician for a financial institution, played golf when he was younger, lingering around a 12 handicap. He was surprised when his 2-year-old daughter asked to come out to the lanai to watch him pitch. She progressed quickly from placing the ball on the tee to swinging broomsticks in the kitchen to her first set of clubs and trips to the driving range.
Comparisons to other prodigies already have begun, he said: "She's compared to Michelle Wie, Ty Tryon" -- "A lot!" his daughter interjected -- "Jennifer Capriati. We're not overbearing parents. We can take it or leave it. We're not in our 20s or 30s and think we can retire now."
Though Stone granted interviews with his daughter for local Tampa Bay area journalists, the Golf Channel and a few other outlets, he said he has turned down "hundreds" to allow his daughter to ease into what could be one of the most impactful experiences of her young career. He is adamant that he and wife Yuen, a hairdresser of Thai descent, "would prefer to have anonymity." But he's been taken aback by what he calls misinformation about his daughter and the family's motivations. He registered her name as a website so someone wouldn't grab it in the future or put out information they didn't approve of.
"I tell people we're going to Cleveland, we're going to play this tournament and after that we don't know," he said. "Will she play golf in 10 years? I don't know. Will she play in six months? I don't know. It's her decision, not mine. You can't force a kid to play. You can't force a kid to play this well."