A documentary about junior golfers, the subject of the final film in the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series at Guild Hall tomorrow, wasn’t the first thing that came to mind for Josh Greenbaum when he was thinking about a new project.
First, he wasn’t a real golfing enthusiast, more of a “weekend hacker,” in his words. Then, he felt the world of 12 to 13-year-olds in fierce competition that he was initially approached about covering had been expertly exhausted in documentaries such as “Spellbound,” about spelling bees, and “Racing Dreams,” about go-cart racing.
It was David Frankel, a son of the longtime New York Times editor Max Frankel, who came to him with the subject. Mr. Frankel, a director and producer, has made films such as “Marley and Me” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” He has twins, a boy and a girl, who are in that world of competitive golf and thought it would make a good documentary.
Mr. Greenbaum, who is known for his comedic short films, has become interested in making documentaries in the past few years. He did some research and soon realized that competitive golfing starts as early as ages 5 and 6. “Then, I jumped at it. That was a movie I wanted to make and watch.”
The film, “The Short Game,” was the South by Southwest Film Festival’s 2013 Audience Award winner for best documentary feature. It is largely set at the World Championships of Junior Golf in Pinehurst, N.C., which is where he got started. “We went to the tournament the year prior to begin casting and meeting several hundred individuals and families to choose those we wanted to follow for the next year.”
The tournament attracts 1,500 competitors from 54 countries. In the end, five boys and three girls were chosen as the focus for the film. In addition to the United States, the children hail from countries as diverse as France, the Philippines, and South Africa. Some have famous relatives, such as Allan Kournikova, the brother of Anna, the tennis superstar, and Augustin Valery, grandson of the poet Paul Valery.
Mr. Greenbaum said his goal was to get to know them “not just as golfers but who they are as people, to make them feel like your little brother and little sister.” He traveled to their homes and watched them train and interact with their families.
He bristled at the notion that each was the product of stereotypical stage parents. “Everyone asks me to tell them about the crazy parents. They are a part of the film, but the children are the leading men and ladies of the film. The parents play a supporting role.”
Are they, in fact, crazy? Yes, he said, they can be, but on the whole they are not as bad as one might assume. “These kids are the best in the world at what they do. So they have to have some sense of an inner drive.” They may receive prodding from their parents, but “you can’t make kids practice at something they don’t want to do at the ages of 5 or 6. You can’t make them good at it either.”
The parents “don’t want to be mean. They want what all of us want for our kids, for them to be successful or happy in what they do. Is there a right way or a wrong way? Sure, but I’m not going in with that judgment. If they are pushing, I want to know why. What lies at the core of it?” Often, it is financial — parents who couldn’t afford to send their children to college otherwise looking for ways to get them scholarships to give them a better life.
The kids, he said, are “one part hilarious and one part brilliantly wise.” Older and more experienced golfers might find that one bad hole at the beginning of a round can ruin their whole game. The children are trained to have a short memory. “Good or bad, they completely forget about the last hole. They are thinking about the next hole, the next shot. Even if they have had a great hole, a birdie or an eagle, they focus on the task at hand.”
Another universal life lesson from the film is their focus on the goal. “The flag is the only thing they see on the fairway. They don’t see the bunker on the right or the trees on the left. As adults we have hit the bunkers and the trees and may only see the obstacles to the goal,” Mr. Greenbaum said. “There is such power and inspiration in watching them play the game and saying, ‘I’m just going to go for the flag.’ ” It is a bravery that he finds compelling both as an individual and as a filmmaker.
“It was unbelievable to wake up every day on this film. You would pick up the camera with an expectation of what you hoped to get, and then getting something completely different was the exciting part for me.”
These unexpected moments, including capturing a hole in one by one of the players, “was just like getting a hole in one as filmmakers — it is so rare to catch.”
Those who can’t make it to the Guild Hall screening can see “The Short Game” in theatrical release starting Sept. 20.