Costa Rica’s youngest golf champion
From the print edition
Elias Mardeni’s ball is in the middle of the fairway on the fifth hole at the La Iguana Golf Course at Los Sueños Resort in Herradura. The ball is about 20 yards from the green. Elias approaches with his chipping wedge, and he whacks the top off of a small anthill sprouting from the grass. He laughs.
Then he steps up to the ball and wiggles his hips a little, glancing to his left at the flag. He swings and watches expectantly as the ball drops on the green and rolls to a stop about four inches from the cup.
When the ball doesn’t drop into the hole, his small shoulders slump in disappointment. Elias is 6 years old. He’s also the reigning national golf champion of Costa Rica for boys aged 5-8.
His father, Elias Sr., brings him his putter. “Muy bien, Elias,” he says. The young champ doesn’t answer, but takes the putter and blithely taps the ball into the cup. He turns and walks back toward the golf cart parked on the fairway, dragging his putter behind him by the handle. He’s wearing golf cleats and shorts striped like a train engineer’s hat.
Elias Sr. grins. “He is muy perfectionista,” he says. “And when he makes a bad shot, or a shot he thinks is a bad shot…” Elias Sr. trails off and shrugs.
A moment later the father climbs into the cart with his son. “Come, mi amor, let’s eat some lunch.” He spoons a few mouthfuls of chicken and rice into Elias’ mouth and asks why he is upset. Elias shrugs and looks a little warily at your correspondent and his photographer.
“Okay, mi amor, what do we do when we have a bad shot?” Elias Sr. asks. Elias breathes slowly in and out through his nose. He does it again and then a third time. By his fourth deep breath he’s starting to giggle and clown around, exaggerating the breaths and puffing out his cheeks.
“Okay,” says Elias Sr. “Why do we do that? What do we need to do after a bad shot?”
“Concentrate,” answers Elias.
“To win,” says Elias, smiling.
At the next tee, after three practice swings, Elias rips an arrow-straight drive more than 100 meters down the fairway and bounces happily back to the cart.
Next week Elias will compete in the Callaway Junior World Championship tournament at Colina Park Golf Course in San Diego, California. He will play three days, from July 10-13, in a field of 39 in the Boys’ 6-and-Under Division.
Elias Sr. will caddy for his son.
Elias Sr. and his wife, Solgia, run El Pana Surf Shop in downtown Jacó, on the central Pacific coast. Neither of them play golf. Elias Sr. came to Costa Rica some 12 years ago from Venezuela to get away from “our crazy president.” His wife followed a few years later and little Elias was born in Costa Rica.
“When he was 2, we gave him some plastic clubs, and he started to play, and he just kept playing,” says Elias Sr. “He kept playing until we had to say, ‘Elias! Elias! Elias! Put that down!’ I think from that he just never wanted to stop.”
Elias Sr. and Solgia took Elias to Los Sueños when he was 4 and paid for a month’s worth of golf lessons with Los Sueños Golf Director José Quesada.
Quesada saw something in Elias after just a few lessons. “It’s not normal for someone his age, a 6-year-old kid, to have the discipline to practice and to focus the way Elias does, and to absorb so well what you teach,” says Quesada, who practices with Elias several times a week.
Quesada offered to train Elias at Los Sueños and to enter him in national golf tournaments.
“The support he has from his dad is very important,” Quesada says. “His dad really dedicates the time to bring him to practice, and he’s always asking me about the rules and different things because his dad doesn’t even know how to hit a ball. He’s a surfer.”
Elias’ parents switch off minding the surf shop, which sits on Jacó’s main strip just a block from the beach, so that Elias Sr. can take his son to train with Quesada.
Golf isn’t exactly a blue-collar sport – especially in Costa Rica. Elias plays with an old set of clubs from Los Sueños, and Elias Sr. worked long hours in the surf shop to recently buy his son a new driver and putter.
“Elias’ family is a family of workers,” says Quesada, who agreed to work with Elias for free after seeing him play. “They have their shop, they both work, but golf, economically speaking, is an expensive sport, and if he wins or qualifies for other tournaments, there are other costs.”
Elias took third place in his first national tournament in Costa Rica in May 2011. His performance in eight other tournaments since then qualified him for the Callaway Junior World Championship as well as the U.S. Kids’ World Golf Championship in August.
“He is capable of winning them both,” Quesada says.
Elias is the youngest player to earn the top-ranked slot in the 5-8 age group.
Vista Los Sueños Canopy Tour, located in Herradura near Jacó, has sponsored Elias and helped pay for his school fees. The tour also covered some of Elias Sr.’s travel expenses for the San Diego tournament.
Quesada, who played golf professionally in the past, said he hopes to keep working with Elias to represent Costa Rica in tournaments abroad. He hopes other businesses will take note of Elias’ ability and help with the costs of future tournaments.
“There are other good players coming up who have represented us internationally, Quesada says, “but at Elias’ age, he’s at another level compared with what is normal.”
“The kids who play at 7, 8 or 9 play at a superior level,” Quesada adds. “That’s what we want for Elias, but we want to move at a rhythm where, at the same time, the sport is still for him. There has to be that balance between fun and sport, because a lot of kids with potential like Elias get too much pressure, and they get bored and leave the sport.”
‘I love it because it’s my favorite sport’
“Watch out!” Elias yells in English as his father navigates their golf cart around one of the namesake iguanas basking on La Iguana course’s cart path.
“Mi Amor, how many holes do you want to play?” Elias Sr. asks. Elias has forgotten his golf gloves and after the first few holes has a small blister on each palm.
“Six,” he says. “No, nine. No, 10.”
Despite the blisters, Elias is relaxed and playing happily now. He takes his time preparing for each shot, calling occasionally to his dad for a different club or another ball to retry a shot he wants more practice on. “I like golf because I like playing it,” he says sitting in the shade of the golf cart between holes. “I love it because it’s my favorite sport. I feel good when I have a good shot.”
Elias Sr. is smiling and trying to convince his son to take another bite of chicken and rice from a Tupperware container.
“You have to eat your lunch. You can’t play Wii tonight if you don’t each your lunch,” Elias Sr. says.
It works. Elias takes two more bites and is anxious to get to the next hole. “He’s very competitive,” the father says. “He gets upset when he makes a bad shot, but thank God, he doesn’t make that many bad ones.”
Elias is used to playing longer holes than what he’ll face in San Diego. Quesada has him practicing teeing off from the same distances he’ll encounter in the tournament, warning the young golfista to stay humble and focus on playing against the course and himself, not the other competitors.
On hole 9, Elias squares up to his ball and makes a nice drive. The second shot takes him over a shallow creek. He seems happy enough with the shot, but tries it again with a similar result. He approaches the first ball to make his second shot with it – a 30-yard uphill chip shot to the green.
“Elias, breathe,” says his father. “Concentrate.”
Elias swings and the little yellow ball hangs in the air before dropping onto the green, bouncing once and clattering against the flagpole jutting from the cup.
“Uyyyyy!!” he says looking around with a smile for his father, who stands by the golf cart beaming at his son.
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