MIAMI — Before a pandemic set in, golfers at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne—the lush island hamlet across the bay from a shimmering downtown dubbed mini-Manhattan—would stop and stare as Axel Monssoh hit balls on the driving range. Five. Ten. Fifteen minutes. It didn’t matter if they were some of the top high school, college and amateur players in the country, or weekend foursomes passing through on the course’s seventh tee, adjacent the driving range. Monssoh got their attention.
What makes this intriguing is that Florida is a hub of golf in the United States. It boasts more courses (1,200-plus) than any other state. An hour or so up the coast from Crandon is the nexus of the PGA Tour universe, the Jupiter/Palm Beach area, with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, et. al, calling it home. It takes something particularly unusual to cause folks to watch another golfer hit balls.
Did we mention that Monssoh is 8 years old? Yes, 8.
All of 4 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing 70 pounds, Monssoh has a lower-body move that generates enough speed to produce drives that carry 175 yards. To put that in perspective, most similarly adept kids his age and size hit drives closer to 160 yards. But it’s not just his rhythmic action or the surprising length that impresses. The little whiz kid has an uncanny ability to work the ball in either direction on command while also having deft short-game skills to get up-and-down with the frequency of kids much older.
“I’ve watched tons of juniors and you can see early on the ones who have a gift for swinging the golf club,” says noted instructor Jim McLean, who gave Monssoh a lesson two years ago and still sees him on occasion. “Some people are just more talented and have better athletic skills. He likes to practice, too.”
He’s also had competitive success.
At last summer’s U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst, N.C., Monssoh won the boys’ 7-year-old tournament with a three-day 27-hole total of seven-under 101 at Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club. To put that in context, European Tour player Sam Horsfield posted a 104 when he finished sixth in the same event in 2004 and current PGA Tour Latinoamerica player and former LSU standout Luis Gagne shot a 105 for a T-7 finish in 2005.
In his opening round, Monssoh made seven birdies in nine holes to shoot 29—the lowest nine-hole score in the 20-year history of the event—and his closest competitor for the week finished three strokes back. Monssoh was one of just two players to end the week under par.
This year, before the coronavirus shut down most competitive play, Monssoh had won the U.S. Kids Copperhead Classic at Innisbrook Resort’s North Course, the U.S. Kids Desert Shootout at Wigwam Resort in Phoenix (where he shot 31-34 to coast to a seven-stroke victory) and the Junior Honda Classic on PGA National’s Fazio Course.
Records in junior events—particularly in such a young age group—can be dubious and are hardly a predictor for future success. The competition is thin, physical development has yet to take hold, and the road to stardom is rife with pitfalls, everything from pushy parents to injury to simply losing interest among the many obstacles. But there are elements about Monssoh that stand out, from his game, to his ebullient personality and practice habits, to his background.
“He’s special,” McLean says.
Marie Arnoux, 44, and Florent Monssoh, 58, met a dozen years ago at Golf de Saint Cloud in Paris, where they bonded over the game, fell in love and got married. Florent, who is black and is a native of the Ivory Coast in Africa but moved to the City of Lights when he was just a child, wasn’t the golfer of the two. Marie is from a family of talented players, and in 2009 won the French Mid-Amateur.
Shortly after that, Marie and Florent, the founder of multiple companies in the healthcare IT industry, emigrated to the United States, settling in buzzy Miami Beach and later the leafy and more family-friendly Coconut Grove once they had their first child. They wanted a strong name that was easy to pronounce in French and English, and they liked the meaning of Axel—father of peace. A few years later, they had a second son and for the same reasons named him Victor.
By the time Axel was a toddler, he had a club in his hands, first a plastic one and then a real one, designed for kids. “He was very natural at first,” Marie says. “I didn’t teach him a lot. He also watched a lot of golf on TV. His dad was taking him to the golf course a lot, just to be there, be around it and have a club and a ball in his hands. By 2½ years old, he was using real clubs and chipping and putting on the course. It went gradually from there.”
At 5, Axel played in his first tournament, a parent-son event. He was hooked.
“Right after he turned 4 his dad brought him out to [Crandon Park], but he could already hit the ball,” says Zach Newell, Monssoh’s coach. “He already had knowledge of the game that 8- and 9-year-olds have.”
To the point, when asked what his favorite course is, Axel blurts out, without hesitation: “Pinehurst!” Then he expounds. “It’s always fun to play there because of the greens,” he says. “I don’t like golf courses that are always flat.” He adds that he doesn’t like them easy, either, which explains why the background for his Zoom interview for this story is the 12th hole at Augusta National. Like a lot of kids, he plays other sports, including tennis, soccer, basketball and swimming, but golf is the one he is most gifted at.
“The first time I played with him he was 5 years old and we played a half-dozen holes,” Newell says. “I brought him back to his mom and told her that he’s got something I’ve never seen before.”
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Such praise can, of course, be overblown, if not precarious. Youth sports is fraught with unrealistic expectations and domineering parents. Even at an older age, unpredictability still looms—according to the NCAA, out of the 141,000 boys who participate in high school golf only 8,500 of them go on to play in college. The numbers only shrink the higher you go.
There are the prodigies that do pan out, however.
Justin Thomas grew up in Kentucky, the son of a golf professional, and by age 5 it was obvious he was doing things kids his age normally aren’t capable of, according to Mike Thomas, Justin’s father and coach. Still, he and his wife Jani proceeded cautiously, even as their only son became the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event as a 16-year-old and went on to have a standout collegiate career at the University of Alabama.
“I had no shortage of people telling me, Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Mike Thomas said. “I’m like, Really? You have no idea what’s gonna happen. ”
Of course, it worked out. Now 26, Justin Thomas is one of the biggest stars of the sport, with a dozen career victories on the PGA Tour, including a major, and has been No. 1 in the world. Not that his dad, who coached him since the beginning, ever told him that’s where he was headed.
“I knew he was way ahead of his time, but we continued to keep things fun and see where it went,” Mike Thomas said. “If you asked Justin when he was 10, he’d say, ‘I’m gonna play on tour.’ As parents, we never discouraged that, but we never talked about it, either.”
Instead, they let events play out on their own.
When Justin was 8, he didn’t have the power, even at a relative level, to dominate. He was too scrawny and couldn’t reach most par 4s in two, resulting in scores around 40 when playing from the forward tees. Playing layouts adjusted for kids his age and size, though, he broke out, regularly shooting four and five under. That boosted Thomas’ confidence, he continued to develop physically, and his game progressed, eventually leading to a stellar amateur career.
But his dad acted cautiously and was mindful not to overdo things, particularly early on.
“I have a lot of kids show up that are not often as good as the parents think they are,” Mike Thomas said. “It’s natural. Every parent thinks that way. But I look real close at the relationship the kids have with their parents. I’ve seen more than one damaging parent.”
In that area, Axel and Victor, (who at 4, according to Newell, is further along with his game than Axel was at the same age), seem to be doing just fine. Although Axel has his own website, Instagram and Facebook accounts, when it comes to golf, at least, it’s not the parents who are doing the piloting. It’s the other way around.
“Their parents aren’t hovering over their shoulder,” Newell says. “It’s almost the opposite from what we usually see in junior golf. The kids show up after school and their parents have to drag them away at sunset. I’m not asking them to listen or pay attention when I’m teaching them. Sometimes, I’m asking them to take a break.”
One case in point was a recent lag-putting session. Every drill Newell presented, Axel routinely rolled his ball to within two feet of the hole. On it went for two hours, at Axel’s insistence. Then there are the chipping and pitching drills when Newell has each of the boys hitting different distances and using varying trajectories. Even after Axel completes the drills, he wants to keep going.
“When Axel has a weekend off, he’s like Why do I have a weekend off? ” Newell says.
With Victor showing similar potential to that of his older brother, the sibling rivalry only pushes each of them further. And their enthusiasm hasn’t waned, even during the pandemic and with golf courses in the area shut down.
“We practice chipping and putting,” says Axel, who is an A-student in his second-grade class, dabbles in chess and piano and goes to Kumon, a structured, self-learning math and reading program that focuses getting kids to think critically and learn new material independently.
There’s also an infectious attitude when it comes to the stars he sees on television and aspires to be like. Axel has little trouble rattling off his favorite players and his face lights up when doing so: “Tiger, JT, Rory and Rickie.” Then he expounds about a recent trip to the Honda Classic, where he also thought it was “cool” to see Jhonny Vegas, Ryan Moore and Sungjae Im, before adding that he, too, hopes to be on Tour one day.
“Something inside him drives him,” Newell says of Axel. “He outworks everyone around him.”
The same was often said of Axel’s favorite player—Tiger Woods—during his prime. Axel got to meet Woods during a U.S. Kids tournament earlier this year at Club Med’s Sandpiper Bay Golf Course in Port St. Lucie. The two crossed paths in the parking lot and Woods, who was there to coach and caddie for his own son, Charlie, gave Axel a high-five.
“That was a special day,” Axel’s mom says.
A lot more figure to be ahead.