A 12-year-old schoolboy from a small rural town in the Bay of Plenty has caused a seismic shock-wave in New Zealand’s golfing scene - winning a national title after only having played three rounds of golf in his life.
Bayleigh Teepa-Tarau is the new champion of the nine-hole golf competition at the national Zespri Aims Games held in Tauranga, amassing a staggering 87 Stableford points from his three nine-hole rounds - thanks to a barrage of booming drives and unerring iron shots.
Hailing from the small township of Tāneatua - which doesn’t even have a golf course - the talented tee-master strolled down the fairways of Mount Maunganui, Ōtūmoetai and Summerhills golf clubs with a beaming smile, wearing basketball boots, and playing with borrowed clubs.
As he had only ever played three rounds of golf before going to the Aims Games, Bayleigh was given a scoring handicap to reflect his newness to the game. Bayleigh also has autism; until recently, he spent most of his time in class under his desk, not speaking.
As well as winning the individual title, Bayleigh helped his schoolmates Pedro Robinson and Lincoln Reritito the team title as well. The boys from Tāneatua School were playing against students from schools around New Zealand.t
“The thing I love about golf is hitting my driver,” says Bayleigh.
“I dreamed about coming here and finishing in first place. And I had a lot of fun.”
Looking as though he was a born golfer, Bayleigh strode confidently from tee to green throughout the tournament, with a facial expression lodged somewhere between casual focus and joy - even on his last hole of the tournament, when he was inches away from carding an eagle score.
For Bayleigh’s parents Hemi Tarau and Pare Teepa, his grandfather and nan following in a cart, and various other supporting relatives, seeing their boy emerge in the past year was worth a thousand of the gold medals draped around his neck.
“Oh, I’m so proud of him,” says dad Tarau.
“I’m surprised at how well he did because of his autism, but then I’m not surprised. He wasn’t really a sports kid a few years ago but he’s just got right into it now and it has done amazing things for his confidence.”
Bayleigh’s dad suspects there’s something in the autism spectrum disorder that could be perfectly suited for the temperament of golf.
“It doesn’t really fluster him too much if he does a bad shot. He just likes hitting, so he really doesn’t care. And he doesn’t know how good he is - although he’s getting told a lot about that in the last couple of days.”
On Bayleigh’s bag over the three days earlier this month was Tāneatua School teacher-aide Whetu Wiremu, although their journey together has been much longer than a road trip along the Bay of Plenty’s highways.
When Wiremu discovered that Bayleigh was always swinging a stick around, and had been ever since he could walk, he decided to formally introduce the youngster to golf.
“He never used to even talk to anyone,” says Wiremu. “I’ve done heaps of work with him for the last couple of years just to get him out of his shell and into sport and I just treated him like I treated all the other kids.”
Wiremu himself has been a recent convert to golf, roped into a round last year by Ōpōtiki Golf Club junior convener and coaching legend Mickey Huriwaka.
Spreading his passion for the game, Wiremu encouraged a group of six young Tāneatua School lads into competing at the Aims Games. Wiremu had to ring around some of his mates to borrow clubs for his young charges to use.
“For the last two weeks, it wasn’t really about taking them out on the course to practise golf. I was taking them out to practise golf etiquette and all that stuff,” he said.
“At the start of it, when someone was hitting the ball, they’d be running in front of people and trying to chip on the greens. They’ve come a long way and for them to improve that much in such a short amount of time, honestly, I’m just so proud.”
Wiremu grew up in nearby Rūātoki and is studying to be a teacher, having served a three-year teacher-aide apprenticeship. He played rugby union, rugby league, and touch rugby as a kid but now has a sneaking suspicion that golf could be an even better pathway for his young students.
“They come from a place where there’s poverty, gangs, drugs, violence, and for them to have this type of opportunity to see and meet people like this is just real heart-warming for me,” he says.
Like many settlements in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, and indeed throughout regional New Zealand, Tāneatua is a town filled with heart and community pride which has embraced the participation element of golf as a sport.
An emotional Tāneatua School’s sports co-ordinator, Te Ahuru Waititi, sat in the Mount Maunganui Golf Club clubrooms, tears welling and voice cracking at the conclusion of the competition as she watched the pupils striding to victory. Because of the cost, Tāneatua School hasn’t been able to get a team to the Aims Games in more than a decade.
“It’s really, really emotional for me because I know the backgrounds of our kids and the hardships and the trauma - it’s really hard-out,” she says.
“We are lucky because Whetu is really keen on golf - he plays in his spare time and about 20 kids have been going to practise golf on a Monday.
“It just gives them opportunities outside of the normal sports like netball and rugby but it’s also about just trying to get them life experiences outside our community.”
The golf team’s gold medals were the first for the school since their memorable 2008 netball triumph - featuring future Black Ferns star Stacey Fluhler.
“Aims Games has amazing facilities and the kids get to be around different types of people - it’s far more than just sports. It’s a safe environment with good people around and without any competition - all the competitors are really quite supportive of each other.”
Down the road in Ōpōtiki, dedicated coach Mickey Huriwaka brought five boys and three girls from Ōpōtiki up to the Aims tournament - and three of them finished in the top 10. Tokyo Hargreaves on 61 points was second, and Kobey Kingi on 56 points finished third, while Precious Herman’s 43 points were good enough for ninth.
Last year, Huriwaka won Golf New Zealand’s Community Coach of the Year award for starting the Rangatahi Junior Golf Development Programme. He promotes, cajoles, and supports dozens of young Eastern Bay youngsters - using golf as a vehicle for change.
“Golf itself is such a good social networking opportunity, and it teaches a lot of the young ones a lot about themselves,” he said. “That’s why I love teaching young kids about a sport that I love.”
And even though Bayleigh’s phenomenal efforts cost his own Ōpōtiki team the title, Huriwaka was one of the lad’s biggest cheerleaders throughout the week. With the ripples of Huriwaka’s programme spreading, he can claim some of the credit for Bayleigh’s win too.
For Bayleigh, the next step is looking at competing in the Special Olympics. He has big shoes to follow in that respect; Kiwi golfer Mitch Brown, from Great Barrier Island, won the gold medal at this year’s Special Olympics in Berlin, Germany, against competitors from around the world.
Word of Bayleigh’s medal-winning achievement quickly spread around the Eastern Bay of Plenty, where local business Waiotahi Contractors has committed to buying Tāneatua’s newest sporting champ a set of his own golf clubs so he can continue his sporting journey.