Gonzalez's Early Trials Keep Golf in Perspective July 20, 2016 | Ooltewah, Tenn. By Stuart Hall

Early adversity away from golf has helped match-play qualifier Brendan Gonzalez keep things in perspective on the course. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

U.S. Junior Amateur Home

Brendan Gonzalez was pretty pleased with himself at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship on Tuesday.

Despite having just signed for a 5-over-par 77 at The Honors Course, his 2-over 146 score in stroke play easily advanced him to match play in his first USGA championship.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” said Gonzalez, who faced Brandon Gillis in the Round of 64 on Wednesday. “I wasn’t hitting it my greatest and I had a couple of loose tee shots. It’s not like it cost me by missing out by a stroke. I didn’t really care how high I placed because if you make match play, you make match play. Everything from here on is icing on the cake.”

There is a sense, though, that even if Gonzalez, 15, of Orange, Calif., had missed advancing by a single stroke, the disappointment would have dissipated quickly.

“I think what he’s dealt with growing up has given him the great perspective that golf is probably the smallest thing he is dealing with,” said Kehli Bowen, who is Gonzalez’s instructor and doubling as his caddie this week. “At 15 years old, you’re not going to get a lot of kids that can understand that.”

Those dealings are more than what any young child should endure.

As a young boy, Gonzalez spoke with “humps and bumps,” as he calls them. He stuttered, and though he began working with speech pathologist Christie Owen at age 4, Gonzalez endured the cruel mocking of his peers.

“It got to the point where I didn’t really want to talk to anyone because I would pretty much stutter on every single word and I couldn’t really get anything out,” said Gonzalez, who continues to work with Owen. “And all these people were mocking me by repeating what I was saying.

“So I worked harder to get better and learn new techniques, and how to make myself feel better when I talk to people and not feel so scared. Public speaking used to be my biggest fear and now it’s almost nothing at all.”

When he was 7, Gonzalez’s mother, Lisa, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the bone or soft tissue. Lisa eventually overcame it, but the fight impacted her son.

“I learned there were far more important things than a round in the 60s or maybe winning a gold medal at a school event,” he said. “It gave me a much bigger perspective on how not to take what I have for granted because it can all go south super fast.”

Around the same time, Gonzalez found a safe haven in golf. He attended a golf camp and then, because neither of his parents played, he taught himself the game by watching online videos of nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods at the height of his  dominance when he won four consecutive majors in 2000-01.

David Gonzalez, Brendan’s father, said golf seemed like an unlikely sport for his son to thrive in due to its individual nature and the additional anxieties the game can create.

“When Brendan was younger, he had to observe the environments before he started mingling with kids,” he said. “So it took him a while to be comfortable in environments, which is funny because golf is not an environment you want to be in when you are that kind of kid. You have all these strangers looking at you and you’re trying to figure out how you are going to overcome that. His comfort level has to be there before he even starts doing his own thing.”

Owen was equally concerned for her longtime patient.

“Christie and I met when I first started working with him,” said Bowen, who began working with Gonzalez at age 10. “I said give me a little time, let him try it and if you feel like he’s regressing on your end or he’s not getting better on my end, then I’ll encourage him to play another sport.” 

When they met again, Owen was tearful.

“I don’t know what you’re doing with this kid, but golf is the best thing that’s ever happened to him,” Bowen recalls her saying.

Gonzalez said his stuttering is at its worst when he is stressed or tired, but that many of the techniques learned from Owen to help him cope are applicable on the golf course. Breathing exercises, for example, help keep him calm.

Gonzalez’s biggest obstacle has been his own growth. A spurt in which he added 6 inches of height in recent years caused him to continually adapt his swing while his scores “dive bombed,” he said. His game began to level out last fall and the results have improved.

As the lone freshman on the Servite High golf team this spring, Gonzalez, an honor-roll student who is active in community service, helped the Friars win the Trinity League title.

On June 20, Gonzalez won his U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier at Carlisle (Pa.) Country Club by a stroke. That result and his play this week are reasons for optimism.

“Though it doesn’t always happen, this is the way I know I can play,” he said.

This championship also serves as an opportunity for players to showcase their games to potential college coaches, and Bowen said there are “five more layers of character” to Gonzalez than just his swing and scores.

Regardless of this week’s outcome, life’s trials have kept Gonzalez grounded.

“He’s incredibly mature because of all of he’s gone through,” David Gonzalez said.

Indeed, he is.  

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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