By: Jeff Babineau
The early spring chill had yet to lift when the fifth-annual Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals teed off at Augusta National Golf Club early Sunday morning. Standing at the back of Augusta’s manicured Tournament Practice Facility, Nancy Lopez took in the scene, young girls chipping to her left, little boys hitting drives to her right, her eyes misting.
“My dad,” she said, “would have loved this.”
Lopez was 8 when her father, Domingo, gave Nancy her first set of clubs. Never could she have dreamed of being that age and competing inside the gates at venerable Augusta National, which 80 talented youths ages 7-15 had the opportunity to do on Sunday, with winners crowned in four Boys and Girls age divisions.
Taighan Chea of Bothell, Wash., is a wisp of a player at 9, and stood over one final 15-footer on Augusta’s ultra-slick 18th green with an inkling that he probably needed to make the putt to overtake talented left-hander Miles Russell in the Boys 7-9 Finals. Chea had studied the competitors before him and knew the putt broke ever so gently to the left. Everything about the putt felt right, and then ... his ball vanished into the cup, and he pumped his fist as a few hundred Sunday patrons roared with approval, much like thousands will next Sunday for the champion of the 82nd Masters Tournament.
Asked his words to describe his moment, Chea said, “It felt like I won the Masters. It’s the best feeling ever.”
Sunday’s champions: 7-9, Chea and Ella June Hannant (Pikeville, N.C.); 10-11, Tip Price (Greenville, S.C.) and three-time Finals participant Vanessa Borovilos (Toronto); 12-13, PJ Maybank (Cheboygan, Mich.) and Sara Im; 14-15, Brendan Valdes (Orlando) and Katherine Schuster (Kill Devil Hills, N.C.). Valdes became the day’s final winner when he nestled a 15-foot putt to 1 feet, 2 inches to edge Joshua Lavely, his division’s driving and chipping champion, in a playoff.
There were some incredible moments Sunday. Jami Morris, 15, a high school freshman from Shaker Heights, Ohio, stood up over the day’s opening tee shot and blistered a drive 220.8 yards, winning that discipline in the Girls 14-15 division. Schuster, who would one day like to play pro golf and fly her own plane (“like Arnold Palmer and Peggy Kirk Bell did”) had to calm herself after the shock of draining a putt from 30 feet. “I was shaking,” she said. “I had to remind myself to breathe.”
How many competitors playing in this week’s tournament proper would love to replicate what Conrad Chisman, a 13-year-old from Stanwood, Wash., did on the 18th green? He curled in his putt from 30 feet, regathered, lined up his 15-footer, and made that, too. Nobody in the history of the event ever had made both putts.
The DCP is a joint initiative started five years ago by the Masters Tournament, PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association. It began with 200 local qualifying stages (the first one for 2019 is a month away) with top players advancing through sub-regional and regional competition to Sunday’s starry National Finals. The players enjoyed a banquet on Saturday night that included a visit from 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia, and players have tickets to view Monday’s tournament Practice Round.
When Schuster made her 30-foot putt and then lagged her 15-footer close enough to earn 10 points in putting and earn her division’s title, the stage was not lost on her. This was the same green on which Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have made putts to win at Augusta.
Bob Baldassari, director of youth golf development for the PGA of America, has traveled more miles and visited more qualifying sites than anyone, and he takes pride in what the DCP has become. Fans at home watch the best of the best in Sunday’s Finals, but any youth 7-15 can show up to a local qualifier to hit three drives, three chips and three putts.
“The beautiful thing,” Baldasarri said, “is that it’s about every kid, every ability, everywhere. It’s bringing families together. And it’s moving the needle for growing youth golf in America.”
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson once again was on site to present trophies to a division, handing off a first-place trophy to Im, the Girls 12-13 champion. Watson’s son, Caleb, is 6; at home earlier this week, Caleb watched replays of last year’s DCP and had a question for his dad: If I do qualify, can you caddie?
Watson was watching as Chea made his 15-foot putt to win the Boys 7-9 group. As a two-time winner at Augusta, he can relate to the memory that was created.
“He made the last putt – how special is that?” Watson asked. “Twenty years, thirty years from now, rest of his life, he’s going to be able to tell everybody he made the putt, no matter if he plays professional golf or becomes president of the United States.”