Swanson: Kobe Bryant’s message still inspiring 13-year-old golf prodigy Jaden Soong

LOS ANGELES — The fist pumps were straight out of Tiger Woods’ playbook. But if you listened closely, you’d have heard not just a roar, but an echo of something else too: Kobeeeee! 

You’d have felt the essence of that familiar follow-throw, too, in 13-year-old Jaden Soong’s exultation: Another big shot swished. The last one Monday – a nervy 12-foot putt in a playoff – secured the Burbank golfer’s spot in the final round of qualifying ahead of next month’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.

That Mamba Mentality remains ubiquitous in L.A., on basketball courts, sure, but on golf courses too. With kids like Soong, who are being raised to believe that excellence comes when you “Put. In. The. Work.”

That was Bryant speaking directly to Soong in a video message captured back in 2018 by his father, Chris, who met the Laker legend at a corporate event celebrating his successful investment in the sports drink BodyArmor.

Chris asked Bryant if he would say something quick to encourage Jaden to practice. More than that, in a 40-second video, Bryant speaks passionately and off the cuff to a young athlete he’d never meet but whom he’d inspire with his words time and again: “Serena Williams hates practicing,” Bryant said, “but she hates losing more. I love practicing. But not everybody does. But if you want to be great, if you want to feel what excellence feels like, you have to put in the work!”

Spent Monday watching 13-year-old @jadenrsoong Soong school the grownups at U.S. Open local qualifying (see below). He shot even to finish T4 – after getting hyped by watching this video Kobe Bryant made him in 2018. Watch and you’ll be hyped too. Thanks for sharing, Chris Soong! pic.twitter.com/96xNN0tuP2

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) May 16, 2023

Jaden listened again to Bryant’s message on Monday before the U.S. Open local qualifier at Brentwood Country Club, where he was, by far, the youngest of a field of 86 – and one of only five to move on to one of the 13 final qualifying sites scheduled between May 16 and June 5.

Soong shot a two-birdie, two-bogey even-par 72 and then survived a one-hole playoff to claim a share of fourth place on Monday, when Orange’s Brenden Gonzalez was the medalist with a 4-under 68.

Calabasas’ Logan Lanier and La Jolla’s Michael Feuerstein also advanced with 70s, and so did Pacific Palisades’ Danny Wax, who finished tied with the 7th-grader from L.A. Unified School District’s Thomas Starr King Middle School.

Soong missed school Monday – a hazard of his life as a burgeoning golfer – to participate in his first U.S. Open qualifier. He started his why-not? round hoping he’d shoot no worse than 5 over. Chris hoped he wouldn’t shoot 10 over and disqualify himself from trying again next year.

Instead, Jaden spent his entire round cruising near the top of the leaderboard – his expert caddie, Nesthee Padilla, said being on the kid’s bag was like what he imagines piloting a Tesla feels like: “Everyone says you get in these cars and they drive themselves.”

When Jaden walked off the course 19 holes later, he had reporters trailing him and a parade of club members sidling up to shake his hand and take photos with him, so they can say they witnessed him when.

Jaden – who recently shot up … to 5-foot-2 – said in the past few weeks, he’s been getting up at 5:30 a.m. to hit the range before school. But his dad will tell you, his son doesn’t actually get to practice all that much.

They try to get a couple of rounds in per week, usually after school on Friday. And he’ll have a lesson once a month or so. And there are the junior events, of course. (He’s got 13 victories in 51 events against other California golfers his age – but if you really want to see his competitive juices flowing, his dad says, you should see him play Fortnite with friends).

Chris also joked that he deserves about as much credit for Jaden’s picture-perfect swing as he does for the fact that one of his daughters is at Yale – none, basically.

Jaden is a public school kid who plays at Brookside Golf Course, the public course in Pasadena, whose heart is really into golf in a way that Bryant would have appreciated.

“There’s no magic formula, there’s no magic wand,” Bryant continued, in the video. “The more you do it, the better you get.”

Soong picked up a club for the first time at 2 and his skills haven’t gone unnoticed since; he was featured on KABC-7 already at the age of 6. Even with the early attention, Jaden’s a personable young guy, easy to talk to like his parents are; and the whole party was summarily stunned on Monday when his prowess scared away one member of his threesome midway through the round and left the other shaking his head at what he’d witnessed: “Very mature, really cool, super nice and considerate,” Samuel Shih, 27, of Sherman Oaks said.

So not a young punk? “Only to the ball.”

“At the end of the day, 10 years from now, when you look back and say, ‘I’m not as good as I should’ve been,’ you have nobody to blame but yourself,” Bryant said. “Because you didn’t put the time in.

“Don’t be that guy.”

Jaden – who turned 10 on Jan. 26, 2020, the day Bryant died – got the message. He holds it dear.

“Just making sure that when I look back, I can say I did everything I could have,” he said after Monday’s tiebreaker. “That really preps me up and gets me motivated … and I’m glad all my work’s paying off.”

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Here’s Jaden Soong sinking a big-time 12-footer in the playoff at Brentwood Country Club to secure his spot in the final round of U.S. Open qualifying. And, yes, dude’s in seventh grade! Story to come… pic.twitter.com/giE2euZc2y

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) May 16, 2023

Jaden Soong, age 13, is interviewed on Monday after advancing to the final stage of U.S. Open qualifying at Brentwood Country Club. (Photo courtesy of SCGA)

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