The Players’ Tribune: A Harvard-bound golfer learns to take it one shot at a time

March 30, 2020 — by Kevin Sze
kevin sze golf story
Photo by Kevin Sze

From Arizona to Massachusetts to Florida, senior Kevin Sze has travelled around the country to participate in the most prestigious youth golf tournaments. While his sights were originally set on Stanford University, Sze's next chapter takes him to Cambridge to attend one of the most prestigious academic insitutions in the world. 

It was the summer of 2010, and I was seven years old playing in my  first golf tournament ever at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento. I had no idea what to expect. 

The tournament was only nine holes, and I went out and played what I thought was a pretty good round. A solid 45 (+9), after sinking a 40-foot putt on eighth holdeight for par. I was grinning as I came off the 9th green. 

Sadly, I finished dead last. 

I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s 1999 silver Volvo S60 and being extremely disappointed. Not really heated or angry, just frustrated with the feeling that I clearly wasn’t good enough to play this game. 

My dad read my body language. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of, “Don’t let other kids or some tournament be the author of your story. You’re the author of your own story. Just you. So think real hard about it, and then go and write what you want to write.”

That snippet of advice stuck with me and is still with me to this day. My dad empowered me by giving me the pen to write my story, and allowing my work ethic to determine the golfer I was going to become. 

I wish I could say this is a story about how a kid gets a cool pep talk from Pops, and then suddenly wins every tournament he enters. It’s not.

Simply put, I was bad at golf. Like, I was really bad. My first tournament opened my eyes to just how bad I was, and improvement wasn’t as easy as I thought it’d be. 

It’s just a stupid little white ball, I’d tell myself. All you have to do is hit it into a hole. It’s not like the ball is moving as you’re trying to hit it. How hard can it be? 

I began practicing every day because I enjoyed the feeling of getting marginally better. I knew that spending time on the driving range or the putting green would eventually pay off. 

By 12, I started seeing clear improvements in my local tournament play. I played in Junior Golf Association of Northern California (JGANC) tournaments. I wasn’t winning, but I was constantly contending and finishing around third.

The same kids kept beating me—over and over and over again. I also discovered that a lot of these kids already earned sponsorships from golf companies, most notably TaylorMade. They got golf balls, gloves and shoes for free.

That ticked me off. I’ll be the first to admit that it was jealousy. I hated that they were better than me, and that they had the sponsorships and trophies to prove it.

When my mom came to pick me up after tournaments, I just got in the car because I never had to wait around for the trophy presentation. I never won. 

I got a golden opportunity in the summer of 2018, at the age of 15. I had no idea how monumental it would be in my golf career, but I was ready for it when it came along. 

The American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) hosts a bunch of tournaments all around the country. College coaches love the AJGA because tournaments are on a national level, not just on a state or city level. 

All tournaments require performance-based entry. Basically, you earn stars by playing well in previous events, and you use those stars to enter into other events. If you place in the top five in an Open event, you are given “Fully Exempt” status for a year, which means you have unlimited stars. 

The problem with it is, it’s really hard to get to this level. You’re granted one star, and you have to play well in smaller tournaments to accumulate stars before you get to enter into bigger tournaments. 

Luckily for me, the AJGA decided to host an Open tournament at San Jose Country Club, my home course since the age of nine. 

Even luckier for me, they gave three tournament spots to the members of the golf course.I had no idea how lucky I was to be playing in the tournament.

I don’t remember where I stood after 36 holes, but I do remember that after my 11th hole on the final day, I was one back of the lead. Since I was the hometown kid, a bunch of members who had watched me grow up came out to show their support. 

It was a pretty cool experience. What wasn’t cool about it was I bogeyed my 13th and 15th hole, hurt my shoulder on the 16th hole en route to another bogey and fell out of the top five. 

On the 18th, I sank a 20-foot putt for a birdie, much to the crowd’s delight. I didn’t realize it, but that putt got me back into the top five. 

As I walked off of the 18th green, my mentor, Marlo Bramlett, gave me a high-five and told me I was fully exempt. At the moment, I had no idea what that meant. I remember thinking that it sounded kind of cool, and that my friend was really excited for me. 

The fully exempt status got me into another tournament a month later in Southern California. I placed in the top five once again, and I started getting some attention from college coaches. At the same time, I got some free balls, gloves and shoes. It felt like Christmas when I ripped open the packaging and saw all the free stuff in the box just sitting there. 

As 2018 came to a close, I started having serious doubts about my ability to continue my high level of play. After all, I had just had only seven stars a few months ago. What if it was all a fluke, and I wasn’t really that good? Could I retain my fully exempt status for next year? Or would I have to go back and grind to get stars again? 

Since golf is a gentleman’s game, nobody really talks down to you. It’s strange because competitors root for you, not against you, in order to uphold the integrity of the game. 

Instead of using other people’s doubts to fuel me,  I used my own. I promised myself that I was going to surpass my accomplishments in 2018 through my work ethic and dedication to the game.

And it worked. In the summer of 2019, I won the AJGA at San Jose Country Club by three shots. I finished in the top five in two other AJGA Open events and  qualified for the 72nd United States Junior Amateur, the most prestigious junior golf tournament in the world. I was invited to the Junior PLAYERS and the Rolex Tournament of Champions, two of the most exclusive events in junior golf. I snuck into the top 100 in the Golfweek rankings and the Rolex Rankings for junior golfers in the world. 

The tournaments I played in took me to all different parts of America, like Arizona, Ohio, Massachusetts and Florida.

Oh yeah, and about playing college golf. It was always my dream to play at Stanford University. 

And if you know me, you know that dream isn’t going to become a reality. The coach talked to me for a bit, but ultimately he decided to go with three other players. I don’t blame him. The three guys he chose are outstanding golfers with long resumes, and they’re really nice guys as well. 

But I’ll tell you what: it does place a chip on my shoulder. Just like finishing last in my first tournament did. Or seeing other kids getting free stuff at the age of 12 did. 

The next chapter of my story starts in Cambridge next fall. I have no idea what’s in store for me out there. What I do know is that I still hold the pen to author my own story, and I’m only done with a little portion of that story.

Stay tuned.