Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament do many, many things very well. What they don’t do often, however, is surprise you.
The inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship National Finals on Sunday was a pleasant surprise. Seeing 88 kids ages 7 to 15 trying to make the same putt on the 18th green that helped Adam Scott win the 2013 Masters was priceless.
It was an extraordinary thing that happened Sunday as the greatest golfers in the world took a back seat to a bunch of kids. More accurately, they took a front-row seat.
Past Masters champions Vijay Singh and Mark O’Meara stopped practicing on the putting green to watch boys attempt the slick downhill breaking 30-foot putt.
2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson talked with some of the kids on the driving range. Scott, the defending champion, crashed one of the awards ceremonies in his green jacket, chatting with each kid before posing for pictures and signing autographs.
None of them were the least bit annoyed that these young golfers and the thousands of fans who came to watch them were intruding on the formerly peaceful Sunday atmosphere before the season’s first major gets underway.
“It’s amazing to see so many people out here and the kids having a fun time,” Scott said. “I think there’s been a lot of high-fives thrown. I was watching some of the telecast earlier and saw some incredible swings. The future looks bright for golf.”
That is, after all, the whole purpose of the competition – to attract young kids to the game by showcasing its merits on the biggest stage.
The Golf Channel provided five hours of live coverage, and it was so professionally done and entertaining that it can’t help but motivate a new generation of kids to want to be a part of it in the future.
This year’s event included 17,500 entries that got pared down to the 88 finalists invited to Augusta.
Next year’s event will nearly triple the opportunities at local qualifying spots to 50,000 at 256 host sites in all 50 states. Further rounds of qualifying will determine the 80 finalists who will compete at Augusta National next April 5. Registration for girls and boys ages 7-15 opened Sunday on www.DriveChipandPutt.com,
“I’m going to measure their success not by where they go in golf but by how many kids they bring to golf,” said Masters Chairman Billy Payne, who spearheaded the event along with the USGA and the PGA of America. “That’s how I view the victory. If you saw some of those golf swings out there, inevitably we’re going to be hearing from some of those kids again.”
One of those future stars is probably 11-year-old Californian Lucy Li. who last summer became the youngest match-play qualifier in U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links history and the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Lucy won her age group after winning both the drive and chip portions.
“I will definitely remember this experience,” she said. “It’s amazing. Just being at the Masters, it’s a really great experience.”
Lucy might have been the best known, but she was just the tip of Sunday’s cumulative successes.
Naturally at Augusta National, it finished with the last putt of the day falling in on the 18th hole. Patrick Welch, 14, of Rhode Island, hammered in the 20-footer with pace to secure the last of the eight overall titles awarded.
“I can’t wait to tell them,” Patrick said of his friends at home, who probably saw it on live TV.
A few hours earlier, it started with a precocious 9-year-old girl from California named Kelly Xu earning the first victory by a female golfer in the history of Augusta National. Was she aware of her historic feat?
Long pause – “Yeah,” Kelly said with a smile and laugh, having dubbed this “the best day of my life.”
“This is the once-in-a-time lifetime and I shouldn’t mistreat this chance,” she said. “It’s really a huge privilege to come here. … This is Augusta National and to me it’s the most special course in the world. I feel like it’s all my hard work has really paid off and it feels really good.”
When 11-year-old Leo Cheng of California sank his putt on the 18th to clinch his age bracket, he raised his putter like Jack Nicklaus in one hand and punched like Tiger Woods with his other. The poised Leo even considerately doffed his cap before shaking hands with Adam Scott, then he hung out under the clubhouse veranda wearing his own version of a green jacket.
The best part? “Making that putt,” Leo said.
Even the kids who didn’t land a trophy had the time of their lives. Sam Kodak, 11, from Naples, Fla., retreated tearfully into his father’s arms after twice chipping well short of the pin in what is typically his best skill. But when it was all over, Sam was all smiles with an autograph from Scott and memories to last a lifetime.
“I didn’t do that well,” he said, “but it was special. I want to try to win next year.”
Sam’s golf coach, Kathy Padgett, says 80 percent of her pupils at the Tiburon Tour Academy in Naples are kids, and that this event is a home run as a motivator.
“The Masters always does everything first class,” Padgett said. “To provide such an environment for nurturing young golfers, this will do miles for them.”
Former pro Peter Jacobsen gushed along with others during the Golf Channel live broadcast.
“This is so much more than I expected,” he said.
It might have even been more than Payne expected when he announced the grow-the-game initiative last year.
“Doing something new, you never know truly what to expect,” Payne said. “But last night at the welcoming dinner the feeling in the room was unbelievably powerful and emotional and exciting. I knew that if that spilled over into today it would be a very special day. This kids are remarkable. Truly remarkable.”
The same could be said of the newest Masters Week tradition.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219