October 2009

What Handicap?

At seven, Kyle Lograsso is already a golf phenom—and so much more

John
Ireland

kyle lograsso, golf, prodigy, good sport Bill McCay/Getty Images

When you first meet him, Kyle Lograsso comes across as a typical seven-year-old. He lives in Murrieta, southeast of Los Angeles. He likes football, baseball and soccer, jokes around with older sisters Kristen and Kaley and plays with his two dogs. He loves videogames, and like a lot of kids his age, he has lined his room with posters of his favorite sports teams and players.

But Kyle is anything but typical. And if you tried to sell his tale to a Hollywood producer, you’d likely be turned down because nobody would believe it.

It all began with Kyle’s parents, Jeff and Regina. Jeff is a United States Marine, now based at Miramar. But when Kyle was a year old, Jeff was stationed in Japan. One weekend, the family traveled to Korea for a softball tournament, and since both parents were playing, Kyle spent his time in their hotel room. He watched a lot of television that weekend, and the hotel had only one English-speaking station—the Golf Channel.

“Jeff and I just looked at each other,” Regina recalls, “and we said, ‘Seriously? He’s watching golf?’ ”

Neither Jeff nor Regina owned a set of golf clubs, nor did they have any interest in the game. Nobody in their families did. But Kyle couldn’t get enough. He began to swing the remote like a golf club. Jeff gave him a baseball bat, and he swung that like a golf club—even after Jeff corrected him. Regina found a set of three plastic clubs, and Kyle pretended he was playing golf in the hotel hallway for hours on end.

The Lograssos thought nothing more of it until they were at a cookout a few months later, and Kyle was swinging a stick like a golf club. A friend who played golf told Jeff that Kyle had “a perfect swing—it’s right on plane.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Jeff said. “Kyle’s going to play baseball.”

This is where the story turns. A few weeks before Kyle was two, Regina saw a glare in his left eye. When she covered his right eye, it became obvious the toddler had trouble seeing out of the left. At Kyle’s two-year checkup, she made sure to mention it to the doctor on the marine base in Japan. At first, he thought Kyle had a cataract. However, an ophthalmologist who visited only four times a year happened to be on base that day, and he thought it was more serious. He sent the family to a hospital in Hawaii, and there the parents got the diag­nosis: Kyle had bilateral retinoblastoma—cancer in both eyes. Fewer than 300 cases a year are diagnosed among U.S. kids.

The physician in Hawaii said chemotherapy over several months could save Kyle’s eyes. But the next day, that doctor was shipped out to Afghanistan. The Lograssos went home to Pennsylvania to meet with Dr. Carol Shields, a specialist at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia.

What they heard next was staggering: Kyle required immediate surgery to remove his left eye, and without it, he would have as little as three months to live. The right eye contained four small tumors that could possibly be treated with chemotherapy. And there were no other realistic options.

“The left eye was advanced in that the tumor was beginning to grow into the optic nerve,” Dr. Shields says. “Had Kyle waited three or four more months, that eye would have likely become painful, but more importantly, the tumor might have spread to the brain and become untreatable, leading to death.”

Kyle’s left eye was removed, and he now wears a prosthesis. The treatment to save his right eye worked. And the Lograssos now look at it as a huge blessing. What if Regina hadn’t noticed the glare? What if the ophthalmologist hadn’t been on base that day? What if the doctor in Hawaii hadn’t been shipped out? “I think God was on our side,” Regina says.

Kyle’s long-term prognosis is promising. “It should be clarified into long-term life prognosis and long term-term eye prognosis,” says Shields. “His right eye has 20-20 vision and four regressed scars from cancer and will likely remain stable for life. So I think the eye prognosis is excellent. Regarding life prognosis, he won’t likely develop a spread of the retinoblastoma because that usually happens in the first one to two years. However, he is at risk for other cancers, because he carries a genetic mutation that led to the formation of these tumors. He could develop bone or soft-tissue cancer in 20 or 30 years, but the odds are he will be fine.”

Throughout his treatment, Kyle remained inexplicably fixated on golf. Four hours after his left eye was removed, he was swinging a plastic club in his room. He watched the Golf Channel on his hospital TV and played golf videogames with his dad.

When he started to feel better, Jeff took him out to a real course, where a local pro watched Kyle on the driving range. He was stunned. After Kyle hit 30 shots down the fairway, the pro videotaped Kyle and put it side by side with footage of Tiger Woods—not Tiger Woods when he was young but Tiger Woods now. The two swings were almost identical.

To this day, Kyle has never had a lesson. “God-given talent is what we say,” says Regina.

“He has the ability to watch something on TV,” Jeff adds, “and then execute it when he has a club in his hands.”

That, by the way, is a skill millions of golfers have been trying to perfect for the past 100 years.

Not surprisingly, Kyle is now recognized as a legitimate golf prodigy. He already has a score of 38 for 9 holes and a 78 for a full round of 18, and he has been invited to professional tournaments and has met several touring pros. He has a foundation and his own golf tournament coming up next year. (Read more about that at kylelograsso.org.)

Like most great players, Kyle has some quirks. For one, he will play golf with Jeff but never Regina. When Jeff was deployed to Iraq, Regina tried to take Kyle golfing, and he hated it. He put his clubs away, determined not to play again until his dad returned. When Jeff was back, Kyle picked right up where he’d left off.

Kyle is right-handed—throws, writes and eats with his right—but plays golf as a lefty (as does Phil Mickelson, the PGA-tour pro). Jeff theorizes that when Kyle was losing vision in his left eye, he couldn’t see the ball, so he taught himself to swing left-handed.

But if you think Kyle is one of those kids destined to play 12 hours of golf every day, think again. “We’re the opposite of most golf parents,” Jeff says. “He’s not going to have a golf coach until he’s much older. We’ve been approached by agents, but he’s not going to have one. We’re not going to force him to practice. If he wants to play, we’ll play. If not, that’s great.”

“I always try to think about letting him do whatever a seven- or eight-year-old kid would do,” says Regina. “I don’t want him to be 18 or 20 and ask us, ‘Why did you pick this out for me?’ It’s his life, and we don’t have to push it.”

Ask Kyle how he became so good at a sport nobody else in his family has ever been any good at, and he says with a shrug, “Wanna see my room?”

In that room, among all of his baseball and football stuff, there is a framed note over his bed from Tiger Woods that encourages Kyle to keep working on his game. (He has never met Tiger in person but hopes to one day.) Next to the note is a signed photo:

To Kyle,
See you on the pro tour!
Your friend, Tiger Woods

Unlikely? Hmmm. Now that you know Kyle Lograsso’s story, would you bet against him?