From the Chess Board to the Golf Course, what makes the Phung Sisters Special?
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian
It was Monday of Masters week in 2019, and Alexa Phung had a coveted ringside seat. Having competed one day earlier in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Championship at Augusta National Golf Club, the seven-year-old was allowed to sit just inside the ropes by the practice putting green behind the clubhouse.
Zoned into his putting stroke and moments before heading to the clubhouse, Tiger Woods spotted Alexa wearing an outfit from the championship. Woods rolled a ball to her from across the green.
That Sunday, Woods captured his fifth Masters title, while 862 miles away in Chicago, Alexa won the Under-8 Girls’ National Chess Championship. Woods’ golf ball and a chess trophy represent the two passions that set she and her sister, Amelie, apart from many of their peers.
Alexa (short for Alexandra), now 8, and Amelie, 12, are students at Tag Young Scholars in East Harlem, New York. They live with their parents, Tam, an electrical engineer, and Jenny Phung, a pharmaceutical health professional, in Queens, New York.
PGA Professional Bob Bigonette met the Phung sisters four years ago while coaching a PGA Jr. League Team in the Bronx.
“They are immensely talented individuals. It’s hard to tell at such an early age how great they will be, but Alexa is the best I’ve ever met. And I have met some pretty good ones,” said Bigonette, a PGA Teaching Professional at the Michael Breed Academy at Trump Ferry Point. “She rarely misses a shot. Her fundamentals need work, but it is as natural a gift as I’ve ever seen.”
Amelie, meanwhile, asked Bigonette for help in another part of the game.
“It was my mental game that needed the most work,” said Amelie. “He’s great at boosting my morale and keeping me engaged so I don’t focus on my nerves. He always reminds me that “the game of golf isn’t about you against your opponent, but about playing against the course.” Bigonette’s lessons have inspired Amelie to begin researching, interviewing experts and professional athletes. She’s begun writing a book, “Breaking Through: Mental Toughness for Juniors,” currently a work in progress.
The Phungs demonstrate the link between golf and chess. After all, it’s not just you against the course, it’s you against the board — where both have had success.
While Alexa captured a national title last year, Amelie won a gold medal for the U.S. Chess team at age 7 and Women’s Candidate Masters title in Mexico, where Alexa took home a silver medal in the Under-8 division.
Between their time on the golf course and playing with a seniors’ chess club at the North Shore Towers in Queens, the Phungs have made many friends, including Harvey Silverman, 79, of Bloomfield, Connecticut, a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps from January 1962 to May of 1966 and held the rank of Corporal and now owns his own financial planning business. He’s impressed by their mission to connect with all age groups and support healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis.
“They want to do things for people. They want to give back and they talk about it and they try to do it,” he explained. “This is really a trial for this generation. I don’t know what will happen to the minds of kids experiencing this, but you hope a lot of positives come out of it.”
Silverman, who also is a golfer, once played a practice round with Amelie at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in preparation for a tournament. “Amelie won, and once the photos were taken, she presented me with her medal,” he said. “They also gave me paraphernalia from events they played in Venice and Scotland, and a cap. In my office, one side is all Marine stuff and the other side is them.”
The Phungs’ talent also draws the admiration of Carol B. Meyer, executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation.
“Amelie and Alexa Phung represent all that is good about chess in the United States,” said Meyer. “Our players are shattering old chess stereotypes through both excellence across the board and their well-rounded lives.”
Meyer said she is “impressed” by the sisters’ talents in both chess and golf, “along with their commitment to community service through intergenerational chess outreach.”
“They are true ambassadors for our respective communities, and as they build for their future they are demonstrating what noted golf commentator Gary McCord once said, “Think of golf as chess. You have to think two or three moves ahead every time you hit the ball.”
Silverman was planning to be among the Phungs’ supporters this year at Augusta National this year. Like the competitors, he hopes for a trip next year. Meanwhile, he has a new mission.
“I’m trying to gather my friends from Gillette Ridge to sing the ‘We Are the World’ song and help the kids’ challenge,” he said.
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