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Young golf phenom wowed the world

Harris Armstrong, 12, died Monday after a battle with a cancer on his spinal cord.

Special to the Times

Harris Armstrong, 12, died Monday after a battle with a cancer on his spinal cord.

TAMPA — Soon as he could manage two legs, Harris Armstrong held a club.

When Harris was just a year old, his father brought him to a golf course. With a videocamera rolling, Jeff Armstrong practiced his swing. Harris toddled in with a club of his own.

Whack!

"I'm not sure I've played much golf since then," said his father. "But I didn't mind."

Harris had exceptional athletic prowess. He was born almost 10 pounds and 22 inches long. The other moms in playgroup called him the "Gentle Giant." As he grew, his swift hand-eye coordination showed.

Harris, who lived in Hillsborough's Avila community, played football and shot hoops in the driveway. He took golf lessons. When it rained, Harris played anyway, putting and chipping through dark storm clouds.

When he reached fifth grade at Berean Academy, he was good enough to play on the high school team. He competed in regional and national tournaments and was twice a runnerup in the Golf Channel's Drive, Chip and Putt National Championship. People said the soft-spoken redhead had the makings to beat Tiger Woods.

But Harris was modest and didn't crave first place. When his friends jumped in front of cameras, Harris stood back. He hardly ever asked athletes for autographs.

During one schoolyard basketball game, Harris chose a clumsy little boy to join his team. In the heat of play, Harris passed to him — he knew he'd lose the point but thought everyone deserved a chance.

"He was always a gentleman and just a real bright light," said Martha Crane, Berean's grammar school principal. "Even though he was quiet, he still had a real presence about him. He was the kind of boy who naturally reached out to others."

In 2007, Harris found he couldn't make a left-handed layup. His arm didn't hurt, but it didn't work. Some of his golf skills dwindled, too.

The family figured he had a pinched nerve. An MRI revealed a cancerous tumor on his spinal cord. Harris was thrust into a pattern of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, rehab and more surgery. The tumor was gone, then it was back.

Harris didn't panic.

"He was exceptionally mature," his father said.

He always believed in God. He prayed several times a day with his father, mother, Jan, and sister, Alison. He liked a particular Bible passage from Romans — Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

His family had "Romans 12:12" printed on white rubber bracelets with the word "Praystrong" on the other side. When his father met people in the hospital, he peeled the bracelet off his own wrist and passed it on.

"Harris embodied being joyful in hope and patient and faithful," said his father. "He exuded that through it all. He never wavered."

Celebrities showered Harris with support. University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer called, confessing an inferior top golf score to Harris (78 to 66). He met Lou Piniella, Tiger Woods, Jon Gruden, Michael Jordan, Annika Sorenstam. He got a note from Jack Nicklaus and Masters flags from PGA pro Chris DiMarco.

Harris struck a particular bond with PGA star Charles Howell III, who wore the Praystrong bracelet on television.

"Harris was a special kid that I enjoyed getting to know," Howell said Wednesday. "He fought hard."

On Monday, Harris died. He was 12.

The next day, the Golf Channel paid respects with a television clip of Harris blasting a golf ball into the sky.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Biography

Harris Armstrong

Born: Feb. 5, 1996.

Died: Dec. 1, 2008.

Survivors: parents, Jeff and Jan Armstrong; sister, Alison; grandparents, John and Pat Armstrong, Jay Ward and his wife, Lynn, Bobbye Ward; aunts and uncles, Barry and Laurie Ward, John and Liz Citron, Glenn and Kerri Elmblad, Joe and Julie Zollner; and many cousins.

Services: Visitation 4-7 p.m. Friday at Blount Curry Funeral Home, 3207 W Bearss Ave. Funeral at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 W San Jose St., Tampa.

Young golf phenom wowed the world 12/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:10pm]
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