Discover more from The Prodigy
Part One: Wamego
The Prodigy is a multi-part story, based on events taking place in central Kansas earlier this spring. This is Part One. Part Two can be found here.
Chris Pearson, one of the nation's best high school golfers, just 16 but already a two-time state champion committed to the Oklahoma State juggernaut, is part charming and part overwhelming. I met him at the modest ranch family home in St. Clere, Kansas, and when I noticed the Oklahoma State pennant nailed up on the living room wall, I joked that the Jayhawks must regret letting him get away. He looked at me like I'd insulted him.
"You think Kansas could recruit me?"
I sensed there was only one correct answer. "Not a chance," I said.
Broad-shouldered, with thick blond hair, he looks like the prototypical prairie farm boy, and three generations ago, he would have been. The family farm was sold a decade before he was born, though, and now he's dressed head-to-toe in Adidas because he wants them to sponsor him one day. On the course, he's both out of context—a midwestern bull in a genteel china shop—and perfectly at home. He plays locally, for the most part, and hasn't even bothered to play any USGA events (“screw ‘em,” he told me, with no other explanation), but when he traveled to Georgia earlier this summer to play in two AJGA events, he won both easily and took pleasure in sticking it to the rich kids. He’s the kind of kid who makes several impressions at once, but what you'll remember about him, more than the booming drives, more than the violent celebrations when he makes a putt longer than five feet, is his mouth. I can't tell if he talks differently than any 16-year-old I've ever met, or if he just talks more.
"I probably won't shut up from now until you leave," Pearson told me, when I thanked him and his family for inviting me into their modest ranch home in St. Clere, KS. "You don't have to thank me for talking, does he mom?"
The woman threw up her hands, but said nothing; just retreated quietly out of the living room, where Pearson was holding court perched on the edge of his leather sofa. This was his stage, and as far as volubility goes, he was almost as good as his word. He was, in fact, a writer's dream—the kind of subject who exists on a vibrating frequency somewhere in the outer cosmos, and whose words come out so raw that all you have to do is transcribe them and set them on the page. It didn't even seem to bother him that I wasn't there to talk about him.
"You want to know about states, right? I was so ready to go, man. Beyond pumped. Finally, after all the talk, I get to play this guy. I wanted to kick his ass. I've been hearing that name for five, six years. Hanoch Warren. Home-schooled kid, nobody ever sees him beyond a few people at a driving range, but he shot a 62 at Noble Ridge. Bullshit. That's what I thought, anyway. No witnesses, and that’s not an easy course, so…bullshit. There was always some convenient excuse for why he couldn't play in any big tournaments. Or any tournaments at all. They're Church of Luke people, you can tell by his name—all his brothers and sisters have fucked-up names too—so fair enough, clearly the whole family is fucking nuts. Can I swear? It's okay to swear?”
I only nodded, afraid to break the spell.
“So it's apparently his dad that wouldn't let him compete in states, or even with Onaga, the high school team out where he lives, and I don't understand why, because I'm not exactly dying to learn more about these people. I mean, us, my family, we go to church, and we believe in God, and all that. Everyone here does. But did you hear the story about his brother, like five or six years ago? He got sick with something, really bad, and they and all the other lunatics just prayed over him all night instead of taking him to the hospital? Yeah, well, the kid died, and he didn't have to. I forget what he had, but it wasn’t cancer or anything, it was something they could have treated in a second at the hospital. And they said it was God's will, and the police couldn't even arrest them or take their kids away, because it's their religion, and I guess you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. That's who you're dealing with. Speaking in tongues. All that kind of shit. I don't even know why they let him play golf.”
“But basically he got to sit back, let all these rumors fly around about how there's this secret prodigy in the Church of Luke, but he never had to prove anything. Like, never. It pissed me off, because I'm always proving everything. I’ve always had to. I've never told anyone this, but one day I looked him up in the phone book and decided I was going to call him and ask him to play. His mom or somebody answered, and when I asked for Hanoch, it was just dead silence. I don't know what was going on, but I couldn't hold my nerve, it was too quiet and too weird and I had to hang up.”
“But when I heard he was actually playing in states, I was fucking ecstatic, and then when I found out he was in my group the first day, I was doing backflips. I just don't like phonies. Every time you hear about someone like that, you play them in person and suddenly they've got a million excuses. Basically, and I don't say this out of arrogance, but basically my perspective is that nobody can fuck with me, and if you think you can fuck with me, well, show me."
I got the sense he'd continue uninterrupted, perhaps for hours, if his father didn't poke his head through the dining room door and clear his throat.
"Chris, this will be in print. Anything you can say, he can write. Maybe go easy on the f-bombs."
"Yeah, okay, great, goodbye," he said, waving him away. He seemed to stew for a moment, annoyed at being interrupted, at being made to feel young and potentially stupid. But it didn't take him long to rally.
"So I was fucking primed," he continued. "I had been waiting for it a long time. He got in through the homeschool competition, which is basically no competition, and to tell the truth the Kansas state championships aren't much competition period. You probably saw I won the last two, starting in 8th grade, and now I was going to win as a sophomore too, because the one guy who had a prayer to beat me had graduated, I ruined his junior and senior year for him, and there was nobody else. Nobody. So that was the plan. At least until we got to Wamego."
Wamego is Wamego Hollow, a private course 20 miles east of Manhattan, where the Kansas State campus breaks up the long, dull monotony of the great central plain. And what happened at Wamego is why I'm here, in the dead center of the United States, trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened those two days in late April at the high school state championships. It was, bar none, the strangest golf story I had ever encountered.
Even without embellishment, the details of that tournament are nearly impossible to believe, and Chris Pearson isn't the type to avoid embellishment.
"What I realized, that morning, was that I had never actually seen him, and I had no idea what he looked like. I had this idea of him, but when he came to the first tee, Hanoch Warren in the flesh, I almost laughed. He was tall enough, not as tall as me, but the thinnest kid you've ever seen. Like toothpick thin. It was muggy as hell, and he was already sweating. I couldn't tell if he was nervous, or shy, or what, but he barely even shook my hand. His voice was barely a whisper, and once he said hello and told me his name, I'm not sure he said another word to me for two days. And he was all alone. No family, no coach, nothing."
Pearson isn't the kind of player who simply likes gamesmanship—he embraces it with a kind of wild joy. To hear him describe his various gambits, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is the part of golf he likes best. On the first tee, he started calling him "Hank," rather than "Hanoch." When Warren started his backswing, he'd start walking toward the hole, and he had worn bright colors—neon green shoes, bright blue pants—to ensure that his opponent couldn't fail to notice him out of the corner of his eye.
"My philosophy there," he said, "is that if they want you to stop, they have to ask you. Some people are going to be too shy to ask, and you'll just make them miserable the whole round. Other people will get up the courage to say something, and then I act like they're being over-sensitive. I stop, but now they feel weird about it, and that messes with them too."
Hanoch Warren surprised him, though, because not only did he not say anything; he didn't even seem to notice.
"He just looked...I guess sad," Pearson said. "I called him Hank, I quick-walked him, I was kind of a pest. I even started calling him "homeschool," and I kept chatting him up even though he obviously didn't want to talk. But it wasn't even registering. Eventually I just stopped, but the whole thing kind of pissed me off. It was okay, though, because I was beating him. He was nothing special. I really thought that."
Pearson was on fire. Wamego is a tough, narrow track—the course record there is only a 66, and one of the three men who managed that score is Tom Watson, when he played there in a charity event in 1974—hard-baked and dusty, but with thick bluestem rough, and the dry spring had made it tough to hold a fairway, much less a green. The scores from that day were abysmal, with more than a few players failing to break 100. Pearson, incredibly, posted a 71.
"I was too good," he remembered. "Not my best round ever by the number, not even close, but in terms of where we were, it might be the best I'd ever played."
Hanoch Warren couldn't match that, but he did put together three birdies to go along with numerous bogeys, and his 78 was enough for third place. With thunderstorms forecast for the following afternoon, the championship committee decided to put players in threesomes for the final day, and to push tee times to the early morning. That meant Pearson and Warren would play together again, with one other student between them.
The wind had blown viciously overnight, and was still gusting up to 20mph when the leaders teed off at 9:30 a.m. On the first hole, Hanoch Warren teed off first, and his driver seemed to have more pop than the day before.
"Which was odd," Pearson said, "because the wind was in our face."
He came close to out-driving Pearson on that hole, and his approach shot stopped 15 feet from the pin. Pearson was ten feet farther away, but he stepped up and drained his birdie.
"I knew it was over when I made that putt," he said. "I pumped my fist at him, basically shouted right in his face. To me, that was a statement—this is going to be a long day for you. Except, then he made his putt. And he didn't say a word, or celebrate. Just picked up the ball, didn't even look at me. I wanted him to react, because then, you know, it's on. But it was like there was no fire in him."
Hanoch made birdie again on the second hole, a par-3, when he hit a 7-iron 175 yards to three feet. Pearson bogeyed that hole, but even though there was no energy coming from his opponent, his competitive impulse was triggered. He played lights-out the rest of the front nine, even as the sky grew darker with the threat of rain and the hard wind became steadier. At the turn, he added up his score and saw that he'd made 35. The third player in their pairing, like almost everyone else that day, had collapsed, shooting 48. Hanoch Warren had shot 31.
"Chipped four strokes away from me, and I was having another special round," Pearson said. "I did not get it. But at that point, it still just made me mad. Like, okay, you caught a heater, but that's it. This is where it stops. Nobody is this good, and I'm going to make sure you don't get any closer."
It was difficult to imagine Pearson ever being at a loss for words, but when I asked him to tell me about that back nine, he suddenly lost his momentum.
"I can't...it's hard," he said. "It's just hard to...I guess, to understand. To understand what I saw. How, uh…how perfect it was?"
I pull the details out of him reluctantly, and I can tell that those details feel mundane, as if simply recapping the shots, and the scores, can't quite capture the experience, or that perhaps what he witnessed was not even real. In worsening weather, Hanoch Warren made one last par on the tenth hole, and when the first raindrops began to fall, he entered a separate universe. And in that universe, he made seven straight birdies and an eagle on the par-5 18th. His back nine score was a 27, and the total was 58.
Pearson's sudden silence became almost irritating to me. This, I thought, was the best part of the story, and I implored him to tell me anything. This 16-year-old, this unknown homeschooled kid, had beaten the course record by eight strokes—had beaten Tom Watson by eight strokes—and now his playing partner, who couldn't shut up normally, had nothing to say? I became more insistent, and realized my tone had become a little too strident when his father appeared at the door again, ready to intervene. That seemed to break the spell, and Pearson spoke again.
"I remember...well, I remember when he walked down the fairway, his head was thrown back, and he was looking at the sky. Even when it was raining. And the weird thing...well, I don't even know for sure, because of the rain, but when I was walking beside him on the 18th hole, it looked to me like he was crying. But at the same time, he was also laughing."
“And what did he say to you?” I asked. “What did you say to him?” Please, give me anything.
What Pearson said, it turned out, aligned pretty closely with my own thoughts.
"We shook hands when it was done," Pearson said, "and I just stared at him for a minute. And then I said, 'who the fuck are you?'"
Warren didn't answer—the laughter was gone, the possible tears were gone, and his just looked sad again—and a few minutes later, Pearson realized that he had never said congratulations, and started feeling bad for how he'd behaved for the past two days. Almost everyone else had cleared out. The rain had intensified, and the thunderstorm warnings had turned into tornado warnings, but he tagged along with two tournament officials as they went to the locker room to give Warren his state champion trophy. He wanted to apologize, and to tell him how good he was, how special.
When they found Hanoch Warren, he was passed out on the locker room floor.
Part Two can be found here.