When AJ Dahlk came to the United States four years ago, he had never heard of the game of golf, much less picked up a club.
Now, at age 14, the Harborfields freshman is getting a chance to compete against the country’s top talent in his age group. Dahlk has been invited to the national championships in the age 14-15 grouping at Celebration Golf Club in Florida this weekend.
"It’s been quite fast," he said about his improvements. "But I worked hard for what I’ve done."
Dahlk was born and raised in Mindanao, the Philippines, an area with high levels of crime, violence and civil unrest. His mother, Imelda Torayno, earned a nursing degree in 2016, and she and her son moved to Centerport to live with a family friend, Matt Sullivan, a retired teacher and avid golfer.
Sullivan introduced Dahlk to the game that has set his life on a new course.
"I had no idea," Dahlk said. "I didn’t even know what the word golf meant."
He learned quickly. Just four years after being introduced to the game, Dahlk is one of the top 14-year-old golfers in the Northeast. He won 11 of the 14 Metropolitan PGA events he competed in during 2019 for golfers aged 12-14.
Dahlk will be joined by three other high school golfers from Long Island in this weekend’s championship — James Bradley of East Hampton, Ethan Kalenderian of Locust Valley and Erik Sandstrom of Hampton Bays.
Dahlk, 5-6 and 115 pounds, has been on the Harborfields varsity since the seventh grade and loves playing at Bethpage. He has shot a 1 under on Bethpage Black, which has hosted the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and is considered one of the toughest courses in the world.
Dahlk’s first club was a cutdown 7-iron wrapped in electrical tape made by Sullivan, who was working part-time at Heartland Golf Park in Brentwood.
"He was only about 4-foot-4 and I told him, ‘Go hit some golf balls,’ " Sullivan said. "And when I watched him and saw him hit the golf ball for the first time, I was like, ‘What the heck?’ I don’t know. It could just be a natural talent or he was mimicking what he saw, but I knew right away when I saw him."
Now Dahlk plays as much as he can — often going straight from virtual or in-class learning to Bethpage Golf Course with Sullivan. Dahlk qualified for the Suffolk County championships in seventh and eighth grade.
"He took off like a rocket," Sullivan said. "He just picked up the game. He played almost every day and he became very good at it."
Dahlk has found solace in the tranquility of the golf course, a stark contrast with life in the Philippines. Dahlk said he rode the bus to school each day accompanied by armed guards.
"I get to forget about the things outside," Dahlk said. "Just being on a golf course and hitting the ball makes me feel like I’m in a different world."
Golf also has helped ease his transition to life on Long Island. Dahlk said he learned some English in school in the Philippines and picked up more by watching cartoons. He said "Teen Titans" was his favorite.
Sullivan said he was concerned that the language barrier and Dahlk’s size could make it difficult for him to fit in.
"I really don’t see it that way because whenever I play with people and tee off, they usually respect me and we become friends," Dahlk said.
His mother, a nurse at Stony Brook Hospital, said golf has transformed her son.
"He’s always practicing and it seems like he’s enjoying it," she said. "And he’s always winning. He loves winning. I am so proud of him and it’s helped develop his confidence and self-esteem."
With dreams of becoming a professional golfer, Dahlk is thrilled to be competing in the national championships and wants to prove himself against top golfers from around the country.
"It means everything to me," he said. "I’m playing against the best and it’s an opportunity to show myself."
“And when I watched him and saw him hit the golf ball for the first time, I was like, ‘What the heck?’ ”
— Matt Sullivan
on his 14-year-old discovery, AJ Dahlk