It's a sport of kings, but for a moment on May 27, Britain's Prince William didn't quite seem to the polo field born. Playing for his exclusive high school, Eton, against a Gloucestershire club, the lanky second in line to the throne inadvertently blocked a teammate's shot from reaching the goal. (As his father, Prince Charles, watched in amusement, another player managed to complete the score.) "William and Harry are just at the learning stage," explains a friend who has coached both boys. Moreover, Will has a handicap most do not: Born a lefty, he must play polo right-handed because the game requires it.
Welcome to William's world, where the rules of the game -- whether or not they happen to come naturally -- dictate just about everything. That's especially true now that Britain's fair-haired prince has just turned 18 and is bidding farewell to his cosseted boyhood. As an adult, Prince Charles and Princess Diana's oldest, who planned a low-key birthday with friends, is now allowed to vote (though royals traditionally don't) and order a beer at a pub. That's the good news. The bad is that the publicity-averse prince can also expect heightened intrusions into his privacy by the world's rough-and-tumble tabloids, who until now have observed a hands-off policy toward the future king. Despite his dislike of media attention, William agreed to mark his June 21 coming-of-age by releasing written answers to questions submitted by a press representative. In addition he allowed a cameraman and a photographer to film him at school and take behind-the-scenes photos. Among the highlights: He likes action movies, casual clothes and dancing; he will take a year off before starting college and won't shoulder any royal duties until he graduates.
Tamara Vestey, 23, a fellow polo player and Gloucestershire neighbor, got a soulful gaze in '99.
In short, he is at once like any 18-year-old and like no other on the planet -- a surreal situation he is by all accounts handling with remarkable grace. At Eton, where he's part of the cool set (unlike his father, who was picked on mercilessly by his Gordonstoun classmates), William excels in geography, biology and art history, his chosen subjects. He's both an athlete and a gentleman, who inherited "his giggle from his mum," says a longtime friend. "The teenagers who knock around with him stress that he's got beautiful manners, is considerate and extremely laid-back," says James Whitaker, royals columnist for Britain's Mirror.
Applying to university based on merit
The prince wants to be accepted by a university (he'll study art history, he says) on merit alone and is "naturally nervous" about his final exams as a result. His top choice, Edinburgh University, has the added plus of being in Scotland, with which Grandmum the Queen is looking to strengthen ties. Not that royal concerns determine all his choices. With help from mentor and entrepreneurMark Dyer, 30-ish, William is planning his upcoming "gap year," the find-yourself precollege break that is de rigueur for upper-class Brits. But Prince Charles, 51, has already vetoed one of his ideas -- to play polo in Argentina -- as "too decadent." So William will probably spend his break visiting such British Commonwealth countries as Canada and Australia.