Michael's Family

In fall 1995, Robert Balcar, a Toledo dentist, traveled to Florida for a tournament. There he met an ESPN producer, whom he told about his son. The producer asked for a videotape of Michael in action, which he ran on ESPN alongside a tape of his father's swing. They were identical.  The company that made Michael's plastic clubs was so pleased with the exposure that it shipped him a miniature golf cart. 22 years old, and the kid had his first endorsement.

Last summer, when he was 23, Michael moved up to live ammo. Wielding a shortened 5-wood, 7-iron and putter, Michael honed his game under his father's tutelage. By season's end he had posted 9-hole scores of 68 and 70. Another videotape, showing Michael stroking 100-yard drives, blasting out of a sand trap and making a 15-foot putt, was shipped to The Golf Channel, which aired the footage last January, a few weeks after Michael's fourth birthday.

Last month Michael turned up at Sylvania Country Club, the Balcars' new club, for some early season practice with his parents. It was a sunny afternoon, but a brisk north wind cooled the air so the blond-haired, square-jawed youth wore plaid pants, a white turtleneck and a smart Arnold Palmer sweat shirt. He's 3 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 42 pounds - about average for his age, his mother says.

But there's nothing average about his swing or the way he approaches the game.

Just like the big boys, Michael lines up every shot before addressing the ball. His grip is perfect, as are his turn and club path. Most impressive is the way he finishes. Even after the ball is airborne, Michael's eyes remain fixed on the ground, meaning he already has mastered one of the sport's most critical commandments: Thou shall keep thy head behind the ball.

Having chipped, putted and whacked a few impressive drives, Michael exhibited another trait common to all golfers. He wanted to play.

So off to the 10th he went, a testy par-3 over water. More impressive than his tee shot, which landed just short of the creek, was Michael's action after he sent a hunk of turf flying. Without being told, he replaced his divot.

It took Michael two shots to clear the creek and several more to finish the hole, but he was pleased enough with his performance to announce, ``I can beat you, Dad!''

Clearly, the kid has a competitive streak, honed, his father says, from putting matches between the two over the winter. The putting competitions and his insistence that Michael work hard on his short game will serve his son well in the future, Balcar says.

Such discussion raises an obvious question: How much should a youngster with Michael's talent be pushed? It's a sensitive subject, but one the Balcars discuss freely.

Robert Balcar, who says he regrets not taking a shot at the pro tour before becoming a dentist, admits he has lofty goals for his only child.

``My dream is for him to be a professional golfer,'' he says. ``I'm going to teach him everything I know.''

Barbara Balcar, who sports the maximum handicap (40) and a variety of non-golf interests, has a more tempered view: ``We both agreed a long time ago that we would not force our dreams on him.''

Given the times, that's not an easy decision. Presently, a pair of teenagers - 16-year-old Martina Hingis, the world's top ranked female tennis player, and world figure skating champ Tara Lipinski, 14 - are earning seven-figure endorsements. After Woods completed his sophomore year in college and turned pro, he signed contracts with Nike and Titleist worth $60 million. Such rewards are causing some parents of talented young athletes to push harder for quicker results.

But the present successes of Woods, Hingis and Lipinski are the exception. There's a thick history of failed careers and shattered lives among young prodigies with forceful parents.

In football, the most notable example is Todd Marinovich. Programmed to be a star from an early age by his obsessive father, Marinovich starred at Southern Cal and signed a big contract with the Raiders. But after a series of arrests for drug possession, his career fizzled when he was still in his mid-20s.

In tennis, Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce are known as much for their menacing parents as their talent. Capriati, who starred early, later dropped out and turned to drugs. A comeback effort has mostly been a bust so far. Pierce's father, a notorious control freak, eventually was banned from the pro circuit for his disruptive behavior at tournaments. Pierce's promising career flourished briefly before slowing down.

Even golf has its example of Svengali-like parents. In 1965, 9-year-old Beverly Klass, at the insistence of her father Jack Klass, joined the LPGA Tour after winning a national amateur tournament by 65 shots. Beverly was a 4-foot, 9-inch fourth-grader who could drive the ball more than 220 yards. Some instructors said her swing was the best they had ever seen for someone so young.

After four tournaments - and $31 in earnings - LPGA officials decided it was a bad idea and changed its rules to exclude Klass. She regained her amateur status and won 25 events in the Los Angles area. But as a teen her interest in golf waned, much to the dismay of her father, who began to beat her with a belt. Beverly ran away.

Today at 40, Klass is a golf instructor at a public course in south Florida. A brief attempt at rejoining the tour in the mid-70s failed. She no longer had the game.

John Jasinski, Stone Oak's head professional and golf coach at the University of Toledo, says parents have to be cautious dealing with talented kids.

``I don't think there's a blueprint between parent and child when creating a prodigy,'' he says. ``It's a combination of having fun and the ability to learn. If a young child gets too involved with either one of them, the other one suffers.''

Of Michael Balcar's game, Jasinski says, ``The kid has no idea what he's doing. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I think children at that age are wonderful mimickers. You take the mimicking (of his father's swing), his coordination and strength and what seems to be his natural love for the game and put it all together and you end up with a good golf swing. For every 500 children his age you'll find one who does something like that. It may not be golf. It may be some other sport.''

In the end, Jasinski says, ``It will be Michael's decision. If he's pushed too hard it may take the fun out of it.''

That won't happen, the Balcars say.

``It definitely has to be enjoyable for him. If he said he doesn't want to do it, he doesn't have to do it,'' says his mother, noting that Michael plays other sports and spends considerable time with his neighborhood friends in non-golf activities.

Says her husband: ``If by the seventh or eighth grade Michael has lost interest, that's fine. I just want him to be a good person.''

But, he adds, ``If he's still good and interested by high school, I'll hire him the best coach money can buy.''

Anyway, that's in the distant future, they note. For now, Michael appears to be having plenty of fun swinging away. Last week he added a driver and several irons to his bag. This summer he'll compete in a league for 6-8 year olds. Balcar figures Michael will hold his own just fine.

Meanwhile, father and son will continue their evening practice sessions, putting competitions, and their other favorite golf-related activity - watching the PGA Tour on TV.

If the Lion doesn't make it to the Tiger hunt, he might have a career in politics. As his father carted him to the 10th tee, he was asked who his favorite player is. Without hesitation, Michael beamed and said, ``My Dad!''