OURAY – When Connor Alvarez goes back to school next week, the Ouray Elementary School second grader will have quite the answer to that perennial question: What did you do on your summer vacation?
In early August, Connor competed in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C. At the time, he was 7 years old. (He has since turned 8.)
Altogether, there were over 1,000 golfers from 30 countries competing at the prestigious event – fewer than 100 of them Connor’s age. He made new friends from all over the world, playing with boys his age from Japan, Florida, Colombia, the Philippines, Ecuador, South Africa and Ireland.
But, Connor hasn’t let all that go to his head. It doesn’t matter whether he’s practicing putting in the back yard, or driving across the greens on the world-class Pinehurst Golf Course designed by famed golf course designer Donald Ross, where the World Championships were held. This kid is all about the game.
Of course, golf was what was on TV when Connor and his family gathered at the home of his grandparents, Rick and Maryanne River, in Ouray to talk about his recent achievements. His favorite player is Phil Mickelson, he said – just like his grandfather. “And I also really like Tiger,” he added.
Last summer, Connor’s family took him to Denver every 10 days to play in Summer League tournaments. He played in seven tourneys and won six – enough to earn him a state title and to qualify for this year’s World Championship. It’s an amazing achievement, especially considering that most kids competing at this level “play every week, all year long,” Rick said. “Connor putts indoors, and swings a real club three months a year.”
Connor got his start with a set of plastic golf clubs when he was 1 year old. “We have pictures of him, with his golf clubs and his little diaper butt,” Dionne laughed.
The plastic clubs didn’t last long, and as his stroke developed, neither did the whole indoor golfing thing. “We moved him outside into the backyard and he started hitting them over the fence,” Dionne recalled. “It wasn’t long before he was hitting them over our neighbors’ yards.”
Connor played his first round on a real golf course when he was three, demonstrating preternatural ability.
“We do not discuss his swing with him,” Dionne said.
And he’s had just one lesson from a pro. That lesson only came recently, in preparation for the U.S. Kids World Championship. “The bunkers on that course are very deep,” Rick said. “He didn’t know how to hit out of deep sand traps.”
The pro showed him how. And now, he’s been there, and done that. At the World Championship tournament, he got into Pinehurst’s dreaded sand traps three times. And, Rick said, “he got out in one swing.”
There’s no doubt, the kid’s a natural. His family is a little mystified where it comes from. “We like to golf,” Dionne said. “But nobody has this kind of talent in the family. Not even close.”
The problem with golf is that it’s very hard, and very expensive. If you live on a golf course, that’s one thing. But Connor lives in Idlewild – a heavily wooded subdivision about three miles north of Ouray. This summer, he only played on a real golf course six times before traveling to compete at Pinehurst.
“Chris and I wanted to get him down there more, but health and work prevented it,” said Rick, who is recovering from recent heart surgery. “We didn’t get him into practice.”
Nonetheless, Connor held his own at the recent World Championship. “The first two days, he played really well,” Rick said. “But he struggled the last day.”
As Dionne tells the story, “On the first hole the boys were all on the green lining up their putt. Connor’s putter was flat on the green, it tipped to the side and moved his ball, maybe an inch. Nobody saw.... But Connor shrugged his shoulders and called a penalty stroke on himself at the World Championship!”
He ended the tournament in 77th place.
One of the things that Dionne loves about her son’s approach to the game is that at this stage, he’s not that concerned with competition. On the contrary, she said, “He always makes a friend when he plays in a tournament. They just talk, talk, talk.”
“He never plays poorly, and he never gets mad at himself,” Rick added.
Dad Chris agreed. “His composure and sportsmanship are top notch.”
It may be tough, being a golfer in Ouray, but, his family says (with some relief) he has no desire to live anywhere else. “He has a lot of time,” Rick said. “He’s naturally gifted and he’s not going to lose that. He can play in high school and college.”
“Or maybe he’ll decide to do something else,” Maryanne added.
That is possible. Connor loves all kinds of sports, not just golf. And who knows what other interests may emerge as he grows older. “Some parents don’t allow their kids to play other sports,” Dionne said, watching her son putt a ball for the millionth time across the living room carpet. “He can do whatever he wants. We don’t care, as long as he’s having fun.”
One of the friends that Connor made at the World Championship tournament, Kichiro Takata from Japan, finished in 6th place overall, and shot a 40 on the last day.
“The difference between Connor and him was minimal,” Rick marveled. “They were hitting their drives similar. But it comes down to, often times, putting. That’s all it takes; one putt or two, between 1st place and 50th.”
And as Connor can attest, practicing putting is not fun. “It’s so boring. I have to practice and practice and practice,” he said. He’d much rather be making some drives. Driving is his best thing. He can hit his drives 150 yards.
And for now, that’s pretty awesome. Nobody is pressuring Connor to do things any differently. “Is he the best 7-year-old in the world? No. Is he one of the best? Absolutely,” Rick said.
What happens next for the young golfer?
“Honestly, we let him decide,” Dionne said.
There could be more Denver Summer League tourneys next year. And he has priority status to play in all of the major US Kids Golf tournaments again in the coming year. Depending on how things go, he may even qualify again to play at the World Championship.
In the meantime, he’ll keep playing at Cobble Creek – his favorite local course – where the guys treat him like a golfer, not a little kid.
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