A conversation about golf Friday afternoon with 7-year-old Alexandra Phung detoured to one of her other favorite subjects, chess.
“Do you know what a seven-move checkmate is?” Alexandra asked. “On the computer once, I beat this man. I did the seven-move checkmate.”
That, golf fans, is like going through Amen Corner a couple under par.
“She’s aggressive,” said her father, Tam. “Her chess coach says she always goes for the king.”
Alexandra will be going for a crown of another kind in the Girls 7-9 division of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals Sunday morning. Six – two drives, two chips and two putts – will be the key number as she competes against her peers at Augusta National.
“In some cases, golf and chess can be the same,” Alexandra said. “When you play golf, you need to be focused. The same with chess – you have to be focused.”
That usually isn’t a problem for the precocious second-grader at the Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars in Harlem, not far from the family’s home in Forest Hills, N.Y. Introduced to golf and chess about two years ago by her father, Alexandra excels at both pursuits.
She currently is second in the Girls 7 and Under ratings of the U.S. Chess Federation and will compete in the All Girls Nationals next week. Alexandra’s sister, Amelie, 11, who was her inspiration to take up golf, also is nationally ranked in chess. Their brother Leo, 13, dances with the New York City Ballet.
“In some cases, golf and chess can be the same. When you play golf, you need to be focused. The same with chess – you have to be focused.”
- Alexander Phung
Alexandra’s chess participation led to a friendship with a volunteer coach, Ben Foley, who is disabled. With guidance from their father, an engineer and inventor, the Phung sisters are designing a golf club for Foley so he can enjoy a sport they love.
“He has really short arms,” Alexandra said, “and my sister and I are designing a club that’s really long so he can use it. Where the grip is, there will be a ball so his hands don’t slip off.”
Tam Phung, a native of Vietnam who immigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old, said, “I’m teaching them how to think like an engineer. How do you solve the problem? I’m giving them the thinking tools, then they have to do it. They love gadgets and designing things.”
Weakened by an intestinal virus last fall on the weekend of the Drive, Chip and Putt regional at Winged Foot Golf Club, it looked as if Alexandra wouldn’t be able to compete. But after encouragement from Amelie, who was entered in the Girls 10-11 division, Alexandra played through her illness to medal in putting and win her division by 10 points.
“She’s a competitor,” Phung said. “If there’s something on the line, Alexa comes through. There was $100 on the line in a chess match with a fifth-grader, sixth-grader and 10th-grader, and she won. The thing about Alexa is, she shows up on the day. She loves being under the pressure.”
Alexandra put it this way, “I like attention. When people are watching me, I like that.”
Her mother, Jenny, a pharmacist, Amelie and Leo, and Bob Bigonette, lead instructor at the Michael Breed Golf Academy, will be rooting Alexandra on at Augusta National as she takes another step in life.
“It’s a family thing for us, a family journey,” Phung said. “You’re trying to compete, but you’re trying to keep a balance. You let the kids pull. You let them lead. They’ve got to want it. My wife and I are recreational golfers, but they’ve grasped it and compete, so they’ve taken it to another level. When you find your passion, and you practice, you become good at it very quickly.”