Early last month, Joshua Bai announced himself as a rising star on the New Zealand golfing horizon by carding a sensational second-round score of five-under at the Akarana Open in Auckland. In challenging conditions, Bai holed out on the 18th hole, claiming a share of fifth for the tournament, outplaying a slew of other far more recognised Kiwi golfers. Making the achievement even more remarkable is the fact Bai only just turned 13. Michael Donaldson meets the next boy wonder of golf.
Honing his game on the practice putting green at the Muriwai Open, Joshua Bai stands out.
He stands out because he's so much smaller than anyone else preparing for the first round of the tournament at the windswept links course on Auckland's west coast.
He stands out because he's dressed so differently – a warm pink shirt, grey slacks and a white cap. He looks dapper.
He stands out in the way he holds himself – he looks like a child but has the mannerisms and poise of a grown man.
He looks confident. He looks at home. He looks like he belongs here among New Zealand's established professionals – players like Michael Hendry, Josh Geary, David Smail and Harry Bateman.
It's only up close that he looks his age: he's just turned 13.
inehurst No 2 is one America's golf cathedrals.
The golfing mecca in North Carolina has also been very kind to New Zealanders.
Michael Campbell famously stared down Tiger Woods at the 2005 US Open played at Pinehurst No 2.
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"And Danny Lee won the US Amateur there," Bai says, like an eager quiz contestant.
He's right of course – 18-year-old Lee won the 2008 US Amateur title on the famed layout to supplant Tiger Woods as the youngest US Amateur champion.
Bai knows this because he has continued the Kiwi tradition of excelling at Pinehurst – winning the boys' 11-year-old title at the annual Kids World Championship in 2017.
While he didn't win his title at Pinehurst No 2, Bai played the No 8 course at the expansive resort and enjoyed walking through the clubhouse afterwards.
"In the hallway down both sides they had the photos of all the past winners and there was Michael Campbell's photo and later Danny Lee's amateur."
Following in the cleated footsteps of those two professionals is Bai's dream – but he's not getting ahead of himself. After all he's got a long way to go at Auckland Grammar, where he's the golf team's No 1 despite being the youngest in the squad.
In New Zealand we've come to understand that it's possible to be a child prodigy golfer – Lydia Ko was 12 when she first entered the national consciousness by reaching the final of the national amateur tournament where she lost to 14-year-old Cecilia Cho.
For Bai, much of his future depends on his growth – right now his small size counts against him when playing with grown men but it's something he more than makes up for in accuracy.
A New Zealand pro who played with Bai when he shot a jaw-dropping 65 at the Akarana Open this year was stunned by how accurate he was off the tee.
On one hole, the group ahead was standing almost exactly on the 135m marker in the middle of the fairway – a disc the size of a small plate indicating that it was 135m to the middle of the green.
Just as they started walking off Bai prepared to hit. It was suggested he wait until the group was a little further down the fairway. "No," Bai replied, "I always hit it to the 135m marker on this hole."
Up he stepped and landed his ball right beside the 135m marker.
Bai got hooked on golf at the age of seven when his father Jeff took him to the golf driving range at JK's World of Golf beside Auckland airport.
"The first time I hit the ball I liked the way it felt so I kept doing," Bai says.
At that stage Jeff had only just started playing himself but he soon gave up in order to support his son's love of the game.
"When he started I stopped," says Jeff who came to New Zealand from Korea in 1996.
"He loves to play and puts lots of time into it."
And when Jeff says a lot of time – he means a lot of time.
Bai's record on golf.co.nz shows he's played more than 600 official rounds of golf in six years – or twice a week every week since he was seven.
In 2015 alone he played a staggering 182 times – and it was in the 137th of those rounds that year when he broke 90 for the first time.
In 2016 his competitive play dropped to a mere 148 rounds and since then he's practising more and playing less, recording just 49 rounds in 2018 – the year he reached "scratch" which is the handicap mark that starts to separate the good from the excellent.
As a result of all that golf, Jeff now finds himself cast in the role of driver and caddie, carting his son from – and around – course after course.
But that's all he does – his son quipping "he just pushes the bag" – he's not cut from the same cloth as more notorious golf dads who become coach-manager-caddie-motivator.
In fact, Bai mostly coaches himself – and in the only way a digital native knows: YouTube.
"I watched lots of players on my iPad – Tiger [Woods], Rory [McIlroy]."
Whitford Park-based instructor Chutaro Isobe, first saw Bai and his home-tutored swing when the budding star was eight.
Isobe says Bai has "natural talent" and is in awe of his unique ability to translate what he sees in videos into reality.
"Not everybody can copy like him. He tried to do lots of things by himself – he built his swing by himself. I work with him on things like grip and posture but a lot of the hard work he does by himself. He has great ball control and contact."
Isobe who works with Bai on his long game – driver and long irons – has coached some talented youngsters in his time, such as Cecilia Cho and Munchin Keh.
He's wary of making comparisons between players especially as Bai is still so small but says the self-drive and determination to work hard by himself is a trait other talented youngsters shared.
Former top pro Marcus Wheelhouse is the other part of Bai's team – working on his short game.
He believes the YouTube lessons are OK for some people but come with inherent dangers.
"If you've got the right support around you and you have the right knowledge base then it's great but that YouTube life can go down an ugly track. But you have to argue that Josh has done it well. I don't think everyone should teach themselves off YouTube, especially when it comes to developing your game because the question is where to go next."
But Wheelhouse can see Bai has great support from his family and that he's also got the knowledge.
"He's a pretty on-to-it fellow – he's wise beyond his years, you can tell that."
And watching Bai in action, he does seem to have that old soul in a young body look about him.
Wheelhouse is also impressed with the youngster's attitude and disposition.
"He's a great refreshing kid to talk to. I think he's got a great attitude. I've asked him a few times about being under pressure and he's got a good idea of what he's trying to achieve.
"He doesn't get scared, doesn't get spooked by much which is a good thing to have.
"He's out there a lot and he loves it. He's got the talent to do what he wants and it seems he has the drive as well which isn't always the case with those young kids.
"He's well organised and his practice is well-structured."
Wheelhouse has seen plenty of talented youngsters through his academy and is wary enough to know that growth and adolescence will bring their own challenges.
"When young kids start to grow the swing definitely changes – it morphs because of the way the body changes. But you don't change all of a sudden over one day, it's a gradual thing. You just have to manage it.
"They have to understand that there will be days when they'll feel uncoordinated – feel like a foreign person. They might have grown half a centimetre overnight or they're tired … the trick is to understand that and manage the loads on that little body."
That said Wheelhouse believes Bai has the talent to achieve great things.
"The key is whether he has the desire – which he does now – and if he can maintain that and keep on loving the game. As soon as it starts to become a graft or a grind that's when the hurdles come. Most of the guys that hang around for a few years are happy."
Right now Bai is as happy a young golfer as you'd hope to meet – he's in love with the game and can't play enough.
Asked if his dream is to turn professional though, Bai is surprisingly modest: "Sort of, yeah, I guess."
His father is more direct.
"We hope he can turn professional but we'll see what happens after two or three years when he grows."
That growth factor is obvious to Bai, who regularly finds himself hitting longer shots into greens than seasoned pros.
"The distances I hit are quite a big difference," he says almost apologetically.
"But I'm really accurate," he adds with a smile.