So much about success in golf is about timing, and Kelly Xu has a knack for it beyond her 10 years.
Xu – a fifth-grader at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica, Calif. – earned the unique distinction last April of being the first girl to be crowned a champion at Augusta National Golf Club in the 7-9 age group of the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.
Asked if she was aware of this achievement, Xu exhibited oratorical timing that even Phil Mickelson would appreciate. Her wide eyes darting around the Masters interview room for almost five seconds, Xu finally delivered an enthusiastic “Yeah!” that prompted laughter and applause.
“It’s a very big honor for me,” Xu said this week. “This championship will always inspire me to work harder and pursue my dreams.”
Xu made history again as the only returning competitor among the 80 finalists at this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which will be held Sunday at Augusta National. She’ll get a chance to reprise the “best day of my life,” this time in the 10-11 girls category. Last year’s 10-11 girls winner, Lucy Li, went on two months later to become the youngest major championship competitor in history at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Xu puts no pressure on herself to live up to Li’s standard or even to repeat at Augusta – a feat accomplished only three times in the Masters Tournament, by Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.
“What (Li) did was amazing,” Xu said. “I just want to do my best and have fun.”
Xu admits last year’s success was a surprise. She didn’t win any of the individual skills but won the overall by being pretty good at everything – a well-rounded formula that nearly won 20-year-old Jordan Spieth the Masters in his debut.
“Last year we thought this was something to inspire her and learn from other kids,” said Xu’s mother, Tong Zhao. “We didn’t expect she was going to win all the way. We always encourage her to pursue her dream and work hard at whatever she does.”
The precocious Xu has become the poster girl for the initiative to help grow the game. Two weeks ago she was whisked to New York City for a whirlwind media tour promoting the event with defending champion Bubba Watson.
“It was mainly just hanging out with Bubba,” Xu said of her favorite golfer along with hometown LPGA star Mo Martin. “That was most of the experience. There were many nice people who treated me really special. It was all just fun.”
She’s become a celebrity in her own right, with her teacher showing video of her CBS This Morning interview to the rest of Roosevelt Elementary, prompting cheers from her schoolmates.
“They’re happy for me,” she said.
Lest she get a big head, her 7-year-old sister, Kristina, sometimes hits better shots on the golf course.
“So that keeps her on the ground and humble,” Zhao said. “She’s a very humble girl and golf is a humbling game.”
Xu speaks well to the mission of the event she returns to compete in, luring friends who had never played golf before to try out with her for this year’s championship.
“More and more heard about this Drive, Chip and Putt thing last year and participated because it’s not really a tournament,” Xu said. “Anyone can do this. It made me happy to see so many people competing and getting interested in the game of golf. Because anything can happen because it’s only three putts and anyone can make three putts. And it’s only three chips and anyone can make three chips. And anyone can hit three drives. It’s the perfect starting point in all of those things. Everyone goes home happy. It’s just the perfect way to start golf.”
Xu started when she was 5 at a golf summer camp.
Her mother grew up in China and played different sports because golf wasn’t an option. But now the whole family plays the game in Southern California.
“This sport is such a perfect thing for any family to spend time together outdoors,” Zhao said. “It has been great, not only winning but in the life skills they acquire and the memories we made as a family.”
Xu’s memories at Augusta are indelible. She enjoyed being recognized while walking around Augusta National – “the most amazing golf course in the world” – and getting to meet players like Jason Day, Jimmy Walker and Jim Furyk. She also got to meet one of the club’s first female members, Condoleezza Rice, whom Xu said is the one person she’d most like to play with.
“She’s actually pretty good at golf,” Xu said of the former Secretary of State. “She’s very kind and supportive of junior golfers. She actually said to keep practicing and that day (to play with her) might come.”
Xu’s favorite thrill at Augusta? “Traveling down Magnolia Lane. It was like so much an introduction to Augusta.”
Xu has changed a bit from the 4-foot-8, 61-pound, 9-year-old who could barely lug her trophy around last year. She’s grown 3 inches and put on nearly 20 pounds, adding more distance to the 162.2-yard drive she hit last year on the Augusta range.
“I’ve been practicing a lot just hitting balls over and over again,” she said of the weakest part of her game. “So I’ve gained some yardage.”
If she puts together a good drive, chip and putt this year, she could make history again. And, she doesn’t take her return engagement for granted. During last year’s news conference with all of the inaugural winners, Xu spoke eloquently of what she thought was a “once-in-a-time-lifetime” opportunity.
“I shouldn’t mistreat this chance,” she said. “It’s really a huge privilege to come here.”
But she hopes to keep returning every April until she’s 15.
Her sister, who advanced past local qualifying at age 7, would like to join her some day and extend the family legacy.
“She has to earn to go there,” Zhao said of Kristina. “Kind of an inspiration for her.”