HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. – Yuhka Kajiki is an ultra-talented up-and-coming golfer, the type whose name we should remember so we can someday say we knew about her before she hit the big-time.
Just 17, Kajiki has already won multiple high-level junior tournaments. She’s currently weighing her options to compete at a Division I school next year. And her average driving distance of 240 yards would rank her in the top half of the LPGA.
Impressive stuff for a kid who moved from Japan two years ago with little working knowledge of the English language to train and study at the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy. Her instructor, Scott Shaffer, believes she could become the best player ever from her home country – “better than Ai,” he says, referring to Ai Miyazato, who owns 25 career victories around the world.
None of these sentiments or accolades, though, can diffuse the pressure she feels on a daily basis. From family back home and – mostly – from herself. In fact, they may only magnify it.
That’s because Kajiki is like so many other ultra-talented golfers her age, struggling on a daily basis to avoid playing the comparison game.
After all, she is just a year younger than Lexi Thompson, who already owns three career LPGA victories. And a year older than Lydia Ko, who has won twice.
The result is an intersection where inspiration meets intimidation, a crossroads where those disguised as peers of phenoms based solely on age can either use those tales as motivation or allow the success of others to swallow them whole, ruining their self-image and confidence.
“We always try to teach our students not to compare themselves to somebody else,” explains Gilchrist, owner and founder of the academy and a longtime instructor of various touring pros. “When they did that on the PGA Tour with Tiger Woods, nobody could play golf anymore. Once you compare, you feel inadequate.
“We also try and help the students learn from others instead of comparing. What makes them so good at that age? It’s usually golfing IQ. They’re just a lot more mature as golfers. There are going to be people like that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to that level one day.”
It’s an appropriate message, of course, but easier said than done.
Kajiki maintains that it’s difficult to see girls her age – and younger – successfully competing on TV without feeling pressure to hurry up and join them yesterday.
“Even my parents say, ‘Why don’t you be like them? Why don’t you hurry?’ But myself, I’m just like, ‘That’s OK. I just want to play golf,’” she says. “Sometimes I fight with my mom, because she can’t get what I’m thinking and I can’t get what she’s trying to tell me, so it kind of becomes complicated.
“She compares me to other people. So when she compares me to other people, I get really upset, because I feel like I didn’t do anything. I feel really disappointed in myself.”
Parents wanting a better performance from their teenagers and browbeating them to the point of dissension is hardly a new development. Add in the dynamic of being on opposite sides of the world and the message can become more pressure-laden, the tension more palpable.
For Kajiki, like so many others her age, the journey hasn’t been an easy one.
“I think she’s just getting more comfortable with being here and being able to calm down and not focus so much on what everybody expects of her,” Shaffer says. “She’s dealing with it a lot better. It was almost to the point where if you talked to her about it before, she would have just started crying. She’s very emotional. But she’s starting to have some better outcomes and she’s seeing that only when she’s stressed out does the outcome become harder to reach. The quieter and more calm she can be, the better the outcomes become.”
The theory in itself sounds like a paradox: The more you want to succeed, the calmer you need to be.
If teaching algebra to a student in their second language is difficult, this message can often come across as near-impossible.
“It’s not a race; it’s not a sprint to get there,” promises Gilchrist, who has 70 students from 20 countries currently attending his academy. “I want her to look at those girls and ask, ‘What can I learn from them to help me improve?’ I want her to embrace it.
“Her personality, she wants results tomorrow. If she’s not getting it, she gets impatient and starts getting frustrated and negative. We have to say to her, ‘What’s your plan to get there?’ Then we take one step at a time. … Her responsibility is to build her confidence, build her self-image and trust her talent and ability to get her there. And if she doesn’t see it, then she’s never going to get there.”
Kajiki is finally starting to see it. She’s finally starting to understand that not every junior golfer can be Lexi Thompson or Lydia Ko – or on the boy’s side, Jordan Spieth or Matteo Manassero. That’s an important distinction, one which can ruin a player’s confidence if they’re focused too much on the comparison game.
When asked about other players her age already enjoying success on the professional level, Kajiki pauses for a second, remembers these lessons and offers a response that sounds straight out of the junior golf handbook.
“They’re the same age,” she says, “but they’re different.”