It would be a dream moment that almost every golfer is born with, though precious few get to realize. Mark O’Meara accomplished it, but not until his 15th try and at the age of 41. Phil Mickelson? He did it, too, but he was 33 and in his 12th attempt.
Akshay Bhatia and Zell Wilson? They may pull it off in their first attempts – at 12 and 9, respectively.
We’re talking a winning putt at the 18th hole on an April Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club.
Now if you have no trouble recalling O’Meara’s right-to-left curler and his arms raised to the sky, and you cannot forget the indelible image of Mickelson’s jumping for joy after his 18-footer fell true, you are probably scratching your head with the mention of Bhatia and Wilson.
They are children from Wake Forest, N.C., and Chicago, respectively, and along with 86 other youngsters from throughout the United States, they will have an opportunity this coming Sunday to feel the sort of magic that allows O’Meara and Mickelson to walk a little taller when they visit Augusta National each spring.
Though it might not have generated much commotion when it was announced last year, as the final of the inaugural National Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship draws closer, its scope has grown wider and brighter. “I’m more than excited to see this thing come to life,” said Bob Baldassari, director of youth golf development with the PGA of America.
Like many, Baldassari considers Augusta National to have an “almost mystical” aura to it, so just being inside the gates is an experience – and that’s an adult who is simply on the grounds. But to be a 7- to 15-year-old not only inside the gates but with golf club in hands for a competition? And with The Golf Channel cameras recording the entire show?
“Incredible,” said Baldassari, who leads a wide chorus of golf industry leaders giving credit to Augusta National for opening its doors to this national initiative to bring more children into the game.
“Augusta’s role in hosting the finals is all you need to know about their commitment. They want longevity for this; they want this to last forever.”
A series of local and regional competitions was held last summer. From a pool of thousands, 88 boys and girls earned spots in the final. There are 11 boys and 11 girls in each of four divisions: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-5.
When the competition commences Sunday at 7:30 a.m., the competitors will each get two drives and two chips each at the practice range. The drives will be judged by longest in-bounds, the chips will be measured by cumulative distance from the hole.
The putting competition will then bring another dimension to the event. The children will get two attempts each on the putting green behind the clubhouse – one from 6 feet, the other from 30 – after which they will move to the 18th green for one final roll, an 18-footer, to the traditional Sunday hole location, no less. What will determine the winners in this skill will be cumulative distance from the hole on all three putts.
But Baldassari said he isn’t so sure all 88 competitors won’t consider themselves winners. He expects it to be that special a day.
“I’m actually not sure who will be more excited, the kids or the parents,” said Baldassari.
Each competitor can have two parents or chaperones with them and for an added bonus, all of them will be given tickets for the next day when gates open to the public to signal the start of the 2014 Masters. “It’s all so impressive,” said Baldassari. “They’re running this with great focus, just like it was the Masters. Augusta members are volunteering. They’ve opened their arms.”
With the National Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship having the backing of the PGA of America and the USGA, it wasn’t difficult to find common ground on the intent of this endeavor. No one was lobbying for another competitive tournament; this was all about introducing the game at the grass-roots level to youngsters who might otherwise never have an introduction to the game.
“I went to some qualifiers and saw kids holding the bag on the wrong shoulder and carrying it upside-down,” said Baldassari. “To them, golf is a brand new sport.”
Putting novices into a situation where they would have to play 18 holes and count every stroke would produce frustration and scare them off. But hitting drives off a tee, chipping shots close to the hole, and rolling putts? “They’re skills that beginners can jump into and not be overwhelmed,” said Baldassari.
It doesn’t bother supporters of this competition if people want to think of it as golf’s version of the hugely popular Punt, Pass, and Kick competition supported by the NFL. That national championship has been around since 1961 and it could be argued that it has spawned countless football fans who have made the sport a lifestyle.
Many golf leaders see the Drive, Chip, and Putt as a way to develop future fans and enthusiastic participants. “Who knows,” said Baldassari, “but maybe some day one of these kids will be on Tour and they’ll show TV video of them playing in the inaugural Drive, Chip, and Putt.”