Great Expectations: The Journey of Young Jaden Soong
In all sports, athletes are measured by performance under pressure. But there is a special pressure and burden placed upon the athlete who shows promise at an early age. Athletes train and compete to have titles after their names: state champion, amateur champion, world champion. But the two words that can bring the most pressure are also the ones that carry the most promise: “The next …”
To be compared to your peers is one thing. To have to stand next to ghosts and the stone tablets filled with their exploits is quite another. That burden is perhaps greatest for the promising young golfer. In a game that confounds some of the greatest competitors on the planet, any young champion can find themselves suddenly being compared to the best that ever played. For today’s young golfer, to be called “the next Tiger Woods” can be simultaneously the highest compliment and a toxic curse.
Jaden Soong is hearing those words now. Prior to this summer, Soong, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was known as one of the most promising young amateurs in the state, became one of the youngest ever to compete in the SCGA Amateur Championships this past August at the tender age of 13. But it was in the U.S. Open final qualifying at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, when he came tantalizingly close to making the U.S. Open field, that he burst onto the national radar.
Soong’s performance was one for the ages, particularly considering his age. With his life and career just beginning, the challenge for Soong and his family is the same as it is for all prodigies: how to develop an extraordinary talent while leading a somewhat normal life.
“I have video of Jaden when I first took him out at about three years old and he made a putt and then he just kind of puts his hand out like the pros do waving to the people!” said Jaden’s father Chris. “He was imitating that because we’d watch golf, but I didn’t know that would actually translate into him doing stuff like that. It was really cute.”
Jaden had similar memories of his first golf swings: “Yes, I think it was really fun. I always had a smile on my face, and I was always laughing and having a good time.”
He started competing in tournaments at age six and he began to display signs of his talent very soon after. “As a six-year-old he finished in the top five out of about 120 kids at a tournament, and he was the top American kid,” Chris said. “So yeah, for us as parents we thought, okay, maybe we have something here.”
Chris chronicled Jaden’s arc on social media and the story caught the attention of some influential people in the game, including Rick Sessinghaus, PGA who coaches Collin Morikawa. “Social media was a platform for us to capture the memories and his progress as he went,” Chris said. “We had the good fortune of TaylorMade finding Jayden through Instagram at the age of nine and then reaching out about doing junior programs and giving him support.”
U.S. Open final qualifying is a pressure cooker atmosphere that can bring experienced adults to tears, but young Jaden thrived in it, which is even more amazing considering it was the first time he had ever played 36 holes in one day. “That had to have been my biggest satisfaction,” he said. “Just being there and being able to play against pros and adults and competing against them was just amazing, especially on (such a difficult) course and in front of all the people watching.”
That performance revealed Jaden’s great promise, but also magnified the challenge for the family of how to be a budding star and an eighth-grader.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
“It takes a village,” Chris said. “We are very fortunate to have some help from our golf family. These kids have been competing with each other since they were five or six years old, and we have stayed together.”
Chris is aware of the pitfalls that could derail Jaden as a golfer and as an adolescent. He shared a story that exemplified their approach to the game: “There was a kid two years older than Jayden, and he won every tournament that you could possibly think of as an eight-nine-and 10-year-old. He just dominated. And today his dad doesn’t even know if the son still wants to play golf anymore because the kid is so frustrated that the kids he was beating are now beating him. And it really gave me a perspective. It’s not what you do when you’re young. It’s not even what you do today. Winning is important, but it’s more about gaining the experience and trusting the process. It’s about the journey.
“You just never know,” Chris said. “He could wake up one day and say, ‘Dad, I don’t want to play this game anymore. I want to do something completely different.’ So, all you can do is control what is in front of you and enjoy every moment of it. And so that’s where I’m really thankful to have Rick Sessinghaus and these golf families that can speak to those things.”
In the meantime, Jaden is having a great time being a teenager. Off the course, he’s a happy 13-year-old who enjoys hanging out with his friends, baseball and cooking (“I like to make steaks!”). On the course, he is refining his game in the image of his golf idols Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. He hopes to play college golf (“UCLA or Arizona State would be huge”) and ultimately go on to the PGA Tour and win major championships.
“The Masters or the U.S. Open, either one of those,” Jaden said. “The U.S. Open is probably the hardest one to win. And the Masters, I’ve wanted to win that one since I was young.”