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Golf's a kid's game

Charlie Reiter
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LA QUINTA, Calif. – Charlie Reiter isn’t quite sure how many golf trophies he owns. Maybe 60 or 70. Lots of medals and other sorts of celebratory trinkets, too. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 or so.

Hey, it makes sense. He can’t even keep track of his wins. His father, Michael, thinks he won 18 times in a 24-start span in “either 2009 or 2010.” His instructor, Tom Anton, maintains that he claimed 30 titles in 35 total events last year. This year he’s taken “about 15 or 18 or 20 – somewhere in there,” says his dad.

And Charlie? Well, he just shrugs and shakes his head in bewilderment.

After all, that’s a lot of math for a 12-year-old.

The preteen from nearby Palm Desert is competing in an otherwise adult field at this week’s Golf Channel Amateur Tour national championships, which would be remarkable if not for his past achievements at this event. Two years ago, he easily triumphed in his flight.

And no, it doesn’t take any complicated math to realize he was just 10 years old at the time.

“We’re trying to teach him about context and how to play. That’s why he’s playing with the adults,” says Anton, who has worked with Charlie for four years. “I want him comfortable in crowds. I want him comfortable so if he’s a rookie and he’s playing with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, it will be like he’s 12 years old and playing with the adults.”

That’s right. Despite being just 5-feet tall and 82 pounds “if he eats a large pizza,” his dad jokes, Charlie is already thinking big. Currently playing to a 7.1 index, he makes no bones about his long-term dreams and desires.

“I want to get onto the PGA Tour,” he boldly states, “and I want to win a lot.”

There is no foolproof method for reaching the sport’s most elite level, but Michael is attempting to draw up the blueprint for his son. Charlie plays golf every single day and often travels hundreds of miles to compete in tournaments on the weekends. During the summer months, they hike a nearby mountain every morning at 6 a.m. And just this year, he started working with noted putting guru Dave Stockton, Jr. on his short game.

If that sounds more like the schedule of a seasoned professional than a kid in middle school, well, there’s good reason for that. It’s all about the end result.

“I’m right along there for the ride,” explains Michael, who was once a scratch player. “I worked at it hard and never quite got there, but Charlie’s got the opportunity. He’s got the talent, he’s got the swing. But you’ve got to have mental toughness out there. I mean, those PGA Tour guys are tough. … But if that’s what he wants to do, I’m backing him all the way. I think he can do it. No doubt about it.”

At such a young age, though, it’s no certainty, either.

“Right now, he’s 12. He’s an adolescent. He hasn’t gone into puberty yet,” Anton says. “The brain chemistry in his brain hasn’t changed yet. So when all that’s happening, the reinforcement that he’s getting is about course management, self-management, expectations. How good do I think he can be? I think he can be as good as he believes he can be.

“I’m just barely smart enough to know to stay out of his way. This kid is wonderfully skilled and talented. He is a prodigy in as much as I show him once how to hit a shot and the next time I see him, he’s mastered it like he’s been doing it all his life.”

While it may seem like Charlie eats, breathes and sleeps golf, he owns plenty of other interests, as well.

“He likes to play his Wii and skateboard and bicycle. He’s on a baseball team,” says his mother, Susan Conti. “He is very mature at certain times, but then he pulls back to being a typical 12-year-old. I think he can relate to more mature people and he can relate to children his own age.”

It’s been easy to spot Charlie on the course this week – and not because he’s the only kid in the field who’s barely taller than a belly putter. His heroes in golf are Ben Hogan and Payne Stewart – he’s watched old videos of each – and he’s mimicked their sartorial style ever since first playing competitively, donning a Tam o’ Shanter and knickers whenever he plays.

Not coincidentally, Anton was very good friends with the late Stewart, who once gave him the hat he wore during Round 3 of the 1999 U.S. Open Championship as a gift. The instructor paid the gesture forward two years ago, rewarding Charlie with that hat when he won the Am Tour championship.

That’s one trophy of which he’ll never lose count.