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May 10, 2019 4:43 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Nine-Year-Old Elie Poremba Of Southampton Is Golfing Phenom

Elie Poremba, 9, of Southampton has been playing golf since she was four years old, and takes lessons with Jason Russell at Southampton Golf Club. She qualified to compete in US Kids Golf Worlds in August. CAILIN RILEY
May 14, 2019 2:21 PM

Jason Russell’s voice rang out, clear and concise, from under the covered driving range at the Southampton Golf Club on an overcast Saturday earlier this month.“How do we deal with pressure?” He posed the rhetorical question to the person standing next to him, not waiting for a response. “Pressure is dealt with by routine.”

His student that day nodded, then walked forward to the tee, took a few deep, measured breaths, a few practice swings—and then hit a beautiful shot into the distance, body arched in textbook follow-through form as the ball sailed through the air. It was the kind of form plenty of serious amateur golfers would want to emulate.

And it wasn’t coming from a lifelong veteran of the game, or teen phenom, but, rather, a 9-year-old girl.

Elie Poremba started playing golf when she was just 4 years old, and in five short years she’s been identified as a special talent. The Southampton Elementary School third-grader has been playing competitively since she was 7, and in that first year of competitive play she finished the season ranked second on Long Island and second on the Hartford Tour.

Elie recently learned she had racked up enough points from strong finishes in tournaments throughout the Tri-State area to qualify for USA Kids Golf Foundation World Championship, set for August in North Carolina at the famed Pinehurst Golf Club, which has hosted the U.S. Open multiple times.

Elie’s rise in the game does not follow the familiar script of golf-obsessed parents filling every free minute of her schedule with clinics and private lessons in a mad dash to turn her into the next Michelle Wie.

Her quick rise in the competitive ranks has come as a bit of a pleasant surprise to her parents, father Jason Poremba, a local architect, and mother Jan Klein (Poremba), who runs a successful small boutique hair salon in Southampton Village.

Mr. Poremba has played golf his whole life but describes himself as more of a casual fan of the game. His parents were members of the Southampton Golf Club, and he became a member as an adult, but he said he never pushed the game too hard on his oldest daughter. (Mr. Poremba and his wife are also parents to another daughter, Quinn, who turns 4 later this month.)

In fact, the first time Mr. Poremba asked his daughter if she’d ever be interested in playing, she had an interesting response.

“She said, ‘No, Daddy—golf is for boys,’” Mr. Poremba recalled as he stood behind Elie at the back corner of the covered range stall, watching her hit shots and take instruction from Mr. Russell.

That was in the summer of 2013, the same summer when nearby Sebonack Golf Club hosted the U.S. Women’s Open. To prove his daughter wrong in the best way possible, Mr. Poremba took Elie to the tournament.

“That was when she realized women could play golf,” he said. “That was the first step.”

The second step, he said, was the release that summer of the Netflix documentary “The Short Game,” which followed the burgeoning careers of some of top youth golfers in the world as they prepared for the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation World Championship—the same event Elie is headed to in August.

“So, that summer, she saw that women could play, and then saw that children could play,” Mr. Poremba said. “And that was pretty much it. I think once she saw it, she realized she could do it.”

He said he had a feeling the sport might be a good fit for his daughter when, at the age of 4, she was able to swing, make contact and have the ball go “decently straight,” he said. He signed her up for clinics at Poxabogue Golf Center in Sagaponack. There, it started to become clear that golf might become more than a casual hobby for Elie.

“People were watching her and saying, ‘Wow, she makes decent contact for someone her age,’” Mr. Poremba recalled.

Before long, Elie was taking weekly lessons from Mr. Russell at Southampton Golf Club, and entering competitions. Elie has lessons with Mr. Russell twice a week in the summer, and in the winter she keeps her game sharp by using the simulator across the street at the Southampton Driving Range.

Mr. Poremba’s friend, Jim Coady, has a simulator at his home, which Elie uses in the winter months as well, along with Mr. Coady’s daughter, Ella, who plays for Southampton High School’s varsity golf team. Mr. Poremba said he has a small putting green in the basement of his home that his daughter puts to good use in the cold months.

The hard work has paid off so far. Elie, who won’t be 10 until January, has had strong finishes in competitive play, especially in recent years. She competes on the Hartford Tour in the spring and fall, and on the U.S. Kids Long Island Sound Tour—which includes children from New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island—during the summer, with half the tournaments on Long Island, and half in Connecticut.

Mr. Poremba and Elie spend a significant amount of time on the road, on weekends when school is in session, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer. Mr. Poremba said living on Eastern Long Island can make the travel commitment tough, but it’s clearly been worth it so far.

In the summer of 2018, at the age of 8, Elie won her age group at the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Sunken Meadow, and then finished third at the next round at Bethpage. Only two girls are chosen from the competition at Bethpage, which made her an alternate to go to the next round at Winged Foot Golf Club. The winners there advanced to the finals at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, Mr. Poremba admitted, but he’s clearly proud of his daughter, and happy to go along for the ride, as her caddy and biggest supporter.

“We’re not big sports people,” he said. “I never thought it would get to this point. I have friends whose kids play sports, and they’re all over the place traveling, and I used to make fun of them. But now that’s me.”

While he finds himself on a path he didn’t necessarily expect to be on, Mr. Poremba said he tries to maintain the same laid-back approach to the game, especially because he’s seen parents come down hard on their kids after tournaments, interactions that often end with the child in tears. “I don’t put any pressure on her,” he said. “It gets pretty competitive on these tours.”

Mr. Poremba said he’s been impressed with the way his young daughter has handled that pressure in competition, even when things don’t go her way. In one tournament, she lost a baby tooth midway through her round. She was rattled for a bit, he said, but pulled through.

During her lesson earlier this month, Elie didn’t say much as she launched shot after shot into the distance at the driving range.

The sight of a small, unassuming girl hitting shots with a mastery many adult golfers never achieve, would have almost been unnerving if it hadn’t been such a joy to watch.

Mr. Russell was focusing that day on a few tweaks to Elie’s swing; her drives had been going to the right, and he wanted to see her hit it more to the left.

Children at that age can run the gamut from painful shyness to nonstop chatterbox, and while Elie tends toward the former, her quietness does not seem to come from a place of self-consciousness or doubt. She states her long-term goals without hesitation: She wants to earn a college scholarship for golf, and one day to play on the LPGA Tour.

When asked what kind of impression going to the Women’s Open left on her, she said, simply, “It made me feel like that girls can do everything boys can do, and maybe even do it better.”

She smiled shyly when asked about the lost tooth incident, admitting it was unexpected, but said she didn’t have too much trouble getting back on track.

“It was really weird, but after it happened, I hit a drive that was one of my farthest ever,” she said.

In the time he’s been teaching Elie, Mr. Russell has been very impressed with her abilities, and said there’s no question that she’s a special player.

“I’ve been here for 14 years now, and I’ve taught a lot of kids,” he said. “And I’ve only seen one other kid as good as her. He started at the same age, and he’s gone on to win multiple club championships.

“You can tell immediately when a kid has the natural coordination,” Mr. Russell added. “We don’t get kids like Elie very often. And it’s not just being a gifted athlete. She’s somebody who picks up on what you’re telling them and can give that info back to me. If they can do that, that’s when you know you have a special athlete.”

Mr. Russell said he believes “the sky’s the limit” for Elie and believes she’s in good hands because she has a supportive family and, so far, has shown that she is willing to put in the work to keep improving.

He is excited for Elie to be a spectator next month when the Southampton Golf Club hosts the Long Island Boys and Girls Championships, showcasing some of the top teen golfers in the country, many of whom have already secured Division I scholarships.

“It will be good for her to come out and watch them,” he said. “Not just for how they play but how they carry themselves, their demeanor, and how they act after hitting a bad shot. I want to look across the course and not be able to tell if you’re playing good or bad. That’s the goal.”

Mr. Russell is excited to keep seeing how far Elie can go this summer, and added that while they will put in a significant amount of time on the range honing her shots, the best way to get better is to simply get out there and play. It’s something he reminds all of his young clients—and these days at the club, his young charges are mostly female.

Mr. Russell credits the increase in the game’s popularity locally among female players to a few things, but mentioned the success of the Southampton High School varsity girls team. It is in only its second season as a program—in years prior, female golfers at the school played on the boys team—but so far it has been one of the top programs in the county, led by several talented players.

One is Caraline Oakley, who won the Suffolk County title last year and also has the distinction of being the first female caddy ever employed at nearby famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which hosted the men’s U.S. Open Championship last summer for the fifth time in its history.

“We have about 96 kids involved in junior golf here, and it’s more girls than boys,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s incredible. It’s really given these girls something to shoot for.”

As Elie grabbed her golf bag and headed back to the parking lot with her father and sister after her lesson, she spotted another young girl warming up nearby, getting ready for a lesson. She asked her father who it was, and he didn’t know.

But her curiosity seemed piqued by the presence of another girl at the range—someone else who, like her, had been drawn to the game and was ready to see where it would take her.

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