HomeNews12-year-old became national golf champion after playing only 3 full rounds

12-year-old became national golf champion after playing only 3 full rounds

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A 12-year-old boy with autism won a national golf competition in New Zealand after having played only three full rounds of golf.

Bayleigh Teepa-Tarau, playing with borrowed clubs and wearing basketball sneakers, bagged the gold medal in nine-hole golf at the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools (AIMS) Games, the country’s most prestigious sporting event for 11- to 13-year-olds. As a newbie, he did not even have a scoring handicap, an index that rates a player based on their recent performances (he acquired one during the competition).

“I’m happy that I came first place, and I got good teammates and made new friends,” Bayleigh said over a video call, mostly quiet but beaming when he spoke about golf.

Bayleigh also helped his school secure the team title last week, the first group AIMS win in any sport for his school since 2008. For the second round, Bayleigh scored 25 points for nine holes, and for the last hole, Bayleigh came within inches of an eagle (getting the ball in the hole in two strokes under par) — extraordinary feats for someone who began playing six months ago but had practiced less than 50 hours combined.

“Bayleigh is just unbelievable and has natural talent,” said Mickey Huriwaka, a veteran golfer who found himself rooting for Bayleigh even though he coaches for a rival team. “To put everything into perspective, it was like he was on the PGA Tour. That was how good he was.”

Taneatua School, where Bayleigh is studying, didn’t send a team to the AIMS Games for more than a decade because of budget constraints. This year, a grant from the school’s board of trustees came through at the last minute, allowing three golfers, including Bayleigh, and an 11-member netball team to compete in the games. (Three other golfers failed to make the cut because of a lack of funds.)

Whetu Wiremu, a teacher aide who is Bayleigh’s golf coach and served as his caddie during the AIMS, said he himself just took up golf 10 months ago. After he was told that Bayleigh used to carry around a golf stick everywhere he went when he was little, Whetu, on a “whim,” decided to recruit the quiet boy to his newly founded school golf team.

Bayleigh said: “Okay.”

The children took group lessons for about six months, Wiremu said, “but because there was so many of them, these boys didn’t really get their one-on-one kind of help.”

With a tight budget for tournament training, Wiremu borrowed golf clubs from his brother-in-law and golfing friends for Bayleigh and a handful of teammates. Wiremu drove the kids in a school van to a golf course 15 minutes away for three full rounds of practice, each lasting around three hours.

“Obviously Bayleigh doesn’t know the technical stuff about playing golf. His game is just to step up and hit the ball. So that’s pretty much what he does,” Wiremu said. “He doesn’t worry about if he’s done a bad shot or a good shot or it’s taking him too much time to get onto the shot. He just loves the sport, and I think just that passion alone drives him to play good golf.”

A tougher task for Wiremu was to earn Bayleigh’s trust and “get him out of his shell.”

When he first met Bayleigh in 2021, Wiremu “really didn’t notice” the boy, who rarely spoke in class. “He was kind of like standoffish for me,” Wiremu said, adding that he really started to open up and smile more this year “because I’ve got him into sports finally.”

“I just treat him like a normal kid. So I just … talk to Bayleigh and treat him like his friends.”

Bayleigh’s autism may have played a role in his keeping calm and being unbothered by bad shots, Wiremu said.

“He doesn’t really get nervous for anything that he does. He kind of just does it to have fun. And if he wins or does a good job in it, then that’s just a bonus,” Wiremu said.

The entire family — his parents, younger brother and grandparents, who live together in Taneatua, a working-class town of fewer than 1,000 on the northern coast of the North Island — showed up for the AIMS golf games and followed in a cart to cheer for Bayleigh. His parents — Hemi Tarau and Pare Teepa — and Bayleigh’s teachers and school staff who watched the games were “super emotional and super proud” of the boy, Wiremu said.

Bayleigh has become a local celebrity after the AIMS win, his coach and friends say. A local business said it would buy Bayleigh and his teammates their own set of golf clubs. Golf New Zealand, the nation’s governing body for golf, has reached out to the school and offered golfing equipment and clothing for the students.

To celebrate their success, Wiremu took Bayleigh and his teammates to have sushi, Bayleigh’s favorite food. After that, Bayleigh suggested that they go to a driving range to play more golf.

“I like playing golf, and I’m always going to play golf,” Bayleigh said when asked about his dream job. “I want to be like Tiger Woods.”

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