The pressure of an 8-foot right-to-left curling putt for par?
Nemo Tsai knows what it’s like to feel the heat in the kitchen. Literally. The 12-year-old from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who is competing this week in the IMG Academy Junior World Championshipscompeted in the Food Network’s “Kids Baking Championship” last year.
Although he didn’t have much baking experience before landing a spot on the reality TV show, Tsai qualified for the final five before his timer ticked. Cakes are her specialty.
“Whenever I get the chance to slip bacon into my baking, I do it because I love it,” he said.
The kid is as comfortable with a driver in his hands as with a spatula. He cooked up nine birdies on Tuesday to shoot a 9-under 63 at Arrowood Golf Course, taking a one-stroke lead in the Boys’ Division 11-12.
Tsai (pronounced sigh) is colorful, starting with her first name, Nemo, after the fish in “Finding Nemo”. His 8-year-old sister, who also participates in the tournament, is named Lilo after the movie “Lilo & Stitch”.
“His mom is a Disney freak,” Nemo’s dad Paul said.
A casting agent recruited Tsai to audition for the cooking show after spotting the kids’ Instagram account. The Tsais own a Japanese food market and restaurant in Ann Arbor and Nemo has been helping them since he was 5 years old.
He first stocked items at the store. Then he opened the doors to the customers of the restaurant.
“He found out that customers would tip him,” Paul said. “It interested him.”
From there, Nemo served as the restaurant’s host, delivered water, collected menus, even helped in the kitchen making sushi rolls.
“I helped pretty much everywhere I could,” he said.
Of his son’s sushi choices, Paul said, “It’s a bit more exotic than what his dad likes. These young kids, this TikTok generation, are trying to do crazy things.
Tsai was so popular on the “Kids Baking Championship” that he was invited back for a Halloween special called “Oh My Gourd!”
Nemo’s mother and aunt played tennis in eastern Michigan. Cousins play in Georgia and Florida. Nemo’s first sport was also tennis, but one day after running groundstrokes, his grandfather took him to the driving range.
Very quickly, he put the racket in the closet and devoted himself to striping the Titleists. He plays around 20-25 junior tournaments a year and has two top-six finishes at Junior Worlds.
When asked which he liked more, baking or golf, Nemo replied, “Golf, for sure. I don’t even think it’s close. You could say that I compete at the same national level (in both), but the golf course is my place. I’m here almost every day and every night in the summer.
“I wake up, go golfing, train until dark, have dinner, then do it again the next day.”
His fascination with golf was heightened a few years ago when he met LPGA sisters Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. The sisters were playing a tournament in Ann Arbor and became regulars at the family restaurant.
Now they are his godparents.
At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, he hits it long, throwing a drive in Monday practice around 280 yards.
“I mean, it was downwind, hard as a rock (fairway),” he said modestly.
In case you didn’t know, Nemo, which is sponsored by Titleist, TaylorMade and a Thai clothing company, has some flair.
After coming back five strokes back to tie the leader in the final round of last year’s USA Children’s Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, North Carolina, Nemo was treated to hundreds of spectators chanting his name as he approached the 18e green. Once on the putting surface, he put a hand to his ear, wanting to know more.
He ended up losing in a four-hole playoff match.
Said Tsai, “I’m chasing this world title.”