PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) – Everybody is searching for the next Tiger Woods.

Could golf’s next big thing be Meechai Padung, a sweet-swinging 12-year-old boy from Thailand who spent Wednesday afternoon on the range crushing 240-yard drives?

How about a ponytailed 7-year-old girl named Haylin Harris, who once was labeled Arizona’s top recruit in its Class of 2017?

Both are among nearly 1,000 wannabes playing this week in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. Any of them could be the sport’s next great player.

“There is the next Tiger Woods in this field,” said John Bryan, vice president of marketing for U.S. Kids Golf. “You just don’t know who they are because they’re so young, and they don’t have that stage.”

Well, they do now. The three-day stroke play tournament for kids ages 4-12 is about four times larger than it was when it debuted in 2000 with 225 players.

This is the tournament’s first year in Pinehurst.

The courses themselves have been shortened by roughly one-third to make things easier for young players, Bryan said. The children are playing on three courses at the famed Pinehurst golf resort, but not on the course that hosted the men’s U.S. Open in 1999 and 2005.

“When the world thinks of championship golf, if Pinehurst isn’t the first thought, it’s certainly one of them,” Bryan said.

One of the big names who has played this tournament before is Dakoda Dowd, the 13-year-old who played in an LPGA Tour event this year to honor her terminally ill mother.

And the winner of the girls’ 10-and-under division in 2000 was Cheyenne Woods – Tiger’s niece.

Her uncle is the inspiration for countless numbers of young players. Tiger Woods famously appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” when he was 2, began playing at 3 and as an 8-year-old won the 9-10 age group at the junior world championships.

Padung someday would like to reach the level of his idol, Woods. But for now, he just wants to prove that his golf career didn’t peak at the age of 8. That’s when he won his age group at the junior worlds plus “a bunch of other tournaments.”

“That was the year I was very dominating,” he said.

Padung, whose family eventually settled in North Augusta, S.C., said he couldn’t help but laugh when a Thailand newspaper anointed him “the next Tiger.”

He learned the sport from his four older brothers and his father, Suradej, who has helped mold his son’s golf game.

“What I think is good for his swing, every instructor has something to (teach),” Suradej Padung said. “So I am the one who picked what is good for (him) from every instructor. That way, he learns for himself.”

Harris, of Carmel, Ind., has a poster autographed by Arizona’s women’s golf team, and it is playfully addressed to the top recruit of the Class of 17.

She began tournament play two years ago, placed second in a qualifying tournament in Sellersburg, Ind., and won a tournament in Indianapolis to earn a spot at Pinehurst.

“They don’t feel any pressure,” said her mom, Andrea. “They just are kids. So when they make great shots out on the course, you just wonder. Their parents’ nerves are much worse than the kids ever feel.”

The youngsters’ words also haven’t been tempered by coach speak.

When Haylin was asked how good she thinks she is, she replied: “Good.”

But not every player wants to be the next Woods or Phil Mickelson. Eight-year-old Nicholas Montes of Pickerington, Ohio, is playing in his third kids championship, and his father says his son has a different goal.

“Maybe he’ll be the first Nicholas,” Tom Montes said.

AP-ES-07-26-06 1749EDT

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