SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - David Leadbetter saw Ty Tryon swing a golf club for the first time 10 years ago. When the videotape arrived in the mail, the world-renowned golf teacher figured it was sent by another pushy parent who thought his kid was going to be the next Tiger Woods.
Leadbetter watched it anyway.
"He was hitting some bunker shots, and he had all the mannerisms of a tour player, the way he shuffled his feet in the sand and twiddled the club," Leadbetter recalled earlier this week. "It was really amazing. He had all the antics of a really good player."
In the decade since that first glimpse, Leadbetter has watched Tryon grow from an imitation to the real thing. After earning his PGA Tour card at Qualifying School in early December, Tryon will make his debut as a rookie today at the Phoenix Open.
"It's kind of uncharted waters," Tryon, the youngest player ever to earn his card through Qualifying School, said yesterday. "I've got a lot of expectations personally, but I am just going to go out there and remember that it's my first tournament and I'm still only 17, have a good time and play my golf game."
And what does Tryon expect?
"Hopefully make the cut, and then maybe top 10," he said. "I don't have any unrealistic expectations."
That might sound a trifle cocky, but that's what happens when you go from a relative unknown outside of Florida to one of the most celebrated amateurs in the country. Until last year, Tryon didn't have the kind of resume that drew comparisons to Woods or any other former phenoms now among the world's best.
"I just kind of got here," Tryon said. "I got here by a lot of hard work. I never really prepared myself for this. It just happened. I always loved things Tiger's done, but I never shot for those goals."
If anything, Tryon is the byproduct of good golfing genes - his grandfather was a three-time New York State amateur champion and his father is a 2-handicap player - and a privileged upbringing.
When he was 5, Tryon's father, Bill, built a pitch-and-putt course in the back yard of their North Carolina home. When Tryon was 8, the family moved to Orlando, Fla., and he started working with Leadbetter. When he was 13, he began working out with a personal trainer and at 15, with a sports psychologist.
"I think I had opportunities most kids don't have," said Tryon, who recently added a massage therapist to his growing entourage. "Maybe one thing helped more than the other. It just worked out that way."
Tryon had been viewed as a true prodigy only since March, when he became the youngest player in 44 years to make the cut at a PGA Tour event before finishing tied for 39th at the Honda Classic. A few months later, Tryon shared the opening-round lead at the B.C. Open, finishing 37th.
But it wasn't until he shot a closing-round 66 in the final stage of the Tour's Qualifying School in West Palm Beach, Fla., leapfrogging more than two-dozen players to make it through an event fraught with pressure, that Tryon's life started to become the whirlwind it is now.
Tryon's decision to turn pro attracted more scrutiny than with any player since Woods in 1996. It has not all been favorable, given that Tryon is only in his junior year at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando and PGA Tour rules won't allow him to play a full-time schedule until he turns 18 in June.
"I don't think there's a teen-ager on the planet who is ready to deal with all this emotionally," said tour pro John Cook, whose son played golf with Tryon in high school.
Said Scott Hoch, whose son also goes to school with Tryon, "I think it's a joke. I know Ty. It's a terrible decision."
Tryon said he has since spoken to both players, and understands how they feel.
"For the most part I think everybody I've met is rooting for me," Tryon said. "I earned my way out here and even if they don't agree with what I did, they still want me to do well. I don't think they want me to beat them, but I think they want me to do well."
Many of the negative comments were directed at Tryon's parents, particularly his father. A former junior varsity basketball player at the University of North Carolina who became a successful businessman, Bill Tryon has been painted by some as the classic sports parent trying to live vicariously through his son.
But he said he is different in one important regard - encouraging his four kids not to be afraid to fail.
"Our whole mantra in our family for years has been try, fail and adjust," Bill Tryon said here Tuesday. "We've always based our success on failure. The greatest lessons in life are learned from failure. I've always noticed that Ty gained his biggest growth in golf from failure, not success."
Tryon is certainly the most precocious of several young players to make the Tour in recent years.
"I think it's becoming a trend, but I don't think it'll stick and become a permanent trend," said Charles Howell III, 22, the tour's reigning Rookie of the Year. "It's tough. Golf is so much different than other sports. It doesn't have to do with your age. You can still have great years when you're 35."
Howell is confident that the PGA Tour will stick to its rule of preventing players from turning pro before their 18th birthday. While he is supportive of Tryon's decision and they have become close friends, Howell hopes that it doesn't spur others with less ability to try a similar path.
"I hope people don't start turning pro when they're 17 or 18," said Howell, who left Oklahoma State after two years. "What all is involved out here is a lot, a lot off the golf course as well. They should finish high school, go to college. It was such a great time for me. I wouldn't trade it in a million years."
Or for a million dollars. That's the combined value of the endorsement deals Tryon recently signed with Callaway, the club manufacturer, as well as Target. Tryon also turned down a sizable appearance fee in the Dubai Open to play in this year's Honda Classic.
Tryon has said that he doesn't plan on missing his junior prom with his girlfriend.
"I still see myself as pretty normal," said Tryon, who is accompanied here by his parents and three younger siblings. "It's getting more different as time goes on, playing in more tournaments and stuff. But it hasn't changed me. It's just changed the people around me."
Bill Tryon, who gave his namesake the nickname Ty after the Chevy Chase character in "Caddyshack," said that his son's sudden celebrity have changed the responsibility he feels to the rest of the family.
"I'm like one of those circus performers who spins the plates," Bill said as his son hit on the range. "I'm just trying to keep one of the plates from toppling over."
Unlike Woods, who turned pro at 20 after two years at Stanford, Tryon still seems to be in awe of his surroundings, of the celebrities he is meeting and the amenities he is suddenly being afforded.
"It's way more than I expected," he said. "It's mind-blowing."
Because of his age, Tryon is in a precarious position in regard to retaining his playing card. He can only play in seven events with sponsor's exemptions before his 18th birthday on June 2, unless he gets a Top-10 finish or earns as much as the 150th player on last year's money list ($279,877).
While Tryon and his family briefly considered challenging the PGA Tour's age rule in court, Leadbetter believes it might wind up as a benefit. Leadbetter recalls what happened to another of his pupils, Justin Rose, who turned pro on the European Tour at age 17 after nearly winning the 1998 British Open.
"He was playing too many tournaments at too young an age," Leadbetter said of Rose, who last week won his first European event. "He was mentally exhausted every week. Technically he wasn't ready. It is going to be a case of pacing him [Tryon] more than anything else. He can focus on each and every event."
Television schedule for the PGA Phoenix Open: Today and tomorrow
4-6 p.m., USA
Saturday and Sunday
4-7 p.m., chs. 13, 9