AUGUSTA, Ga. – Locked away for safe keeping is a priceless piece of information and should you question his credentials, Mark O’Meara could smile and remind you of how it is he came in possession of a certain green jacket.
It was 16 years ago when O’Meara on an April Sunday stared down a putt at the 72nd green at Augusta National Golf Club and curled it from right-to-left into the hole. The winning putt at the 1998 Masters is a memory worth talking about forever, any time, any place.
“About 18 to 20 feet,” O’Meara said, when asked for the length. And when discussion turned to the proceedings that surrounded him Sunday on his annual pilgrimage back to Augusta National, O’Meara smiled.
“This is a cool thing, a totally cool thing,” said O’Meara.
He was referring to the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship that featured 88 youngsters who had advanced through local and regional competition last year. Impressive as that endeavor might have been with the blessing and support of both the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association, what turned this competition into a home run was Augusta National’s total support.
As O’Meara spoke, the area behind Augusta National was jam-packed with young golfers, their parents and a healthy amount of patrons who bought tickets to be inside the gates just to watch. Beyond that, what stood out was the presence of so many Augusta National members, nattily adorned in their green jackets, manning the different stations to support the competition, assisted by officials with the PGA of America and the USGA.
A home run? Correct that. It was a walk-off home run.
“What Chairman (Billy) Payne and the people have done here is incredible,” said O’Meara, and his effusive support for the first Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship was echoed loud and clear by so many of his colleagues. As they arrived at Augusta National as part of their practice routine for this week’s 75th Masters, players were more than willing to stop and take note of what was going on.
Adam Scott, last year’s Masters champ, was there when the trophy presentation was made to Leo Cheng in the 10-11 age category. Bubba Watson, the 2012 Masters winner, strolled the range and shook hands with competitors, and Jordan Spieth offered fist-bumps as some of the contestants moved from the practice area to the putting green behind the clubhouse.
Payne acknowledged that “anytime you do something new, you truly don’t know what to expect” but when he attended a banquet Saturday night for the kids, their parents and upwards of 450 people, the Augusta National chairman was convinced a good thing had been hatched. “There was an unbelievable powerful excitement and spirit.”
The competition started at the practice facility where the youngsters each had two drives and two chips. They then moved to the putting green for two putts – one from 6 feet, the other a 30-footer that was downhill and slick as could be. And for the final piece, the shot that would decide many of the age winners, the kids had a putt from about 15 feet on the 18th green.
O’Meara nodded his approval, because it was a putt eerily similar to what he had at the very end of that unforgettable Masters in 1998. Did he offer any advice? He shook his head. “They don’t need it,” said O’Meara. “They’re fearless.”
Fearlessness was just one of the attributes these 88 youths had in common. But the more unmistakable one was that of joy – and if Kelly Xu’s smile didn’t say it all, then there aren’t any pine trees out on this old nursery off Washington Road.
Having handled the three skill challenges to win the 7-9 girls’ group, Xu handled her next assignment as flawlessly. She faced a handful of golf writers who wanted to know what it was like to be the first official winner of this championship.
“Best day of my life,” said the 9-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif.
With her age group given the honor of commencing this inaugural competition around 7:30 a.m., Xu didn’t deny that the butterflies were dancing, But “after I hit my first drive, I felt really good.”
Her delivery conveyed those emotions, too, because Xu regaled a few golf writers with her answers. Showing she got the grasp of Augusta National in the short time she was here, Xu said she envisioned “glass greens” before she came here, but the vaunted club “was perfect, much better than other courses.”
For all the laughter generated by some of her other answers (“lunch,” she said, was her favorite subject in school), what was hard to miss was the genuine interest veteran players showed. O’Meara stopped and watched some of the competitors putt and at the other half of the practice green, former champions Fuzzy Zoeller and Vijay Singh shared a front-row seat to what the kids were doing.
When the idea of this initiative was first broached, even when Augusta National stepped in with its support, it’s safe to say that it was welcomed, but had to prove itself. To test the waters, the PGA of America launched local and regional competition in just 12 of its 41 sections. But as yesterday grew closer and the reality settled in – Augusta National was opening its arms to this thing – enthusiasm mounted. So overwhelming was the overall support of the first Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship, that the PGA of America and USGA confirmed that it will spread to all 50 states in 2015.
Officials expect 50,000 children to enroll for next year and Tom O’Toole, the president of the USGA, said one of his colleagues checked the website during the day and saw that 2,500 already had signed up.
“A lot of kids want to find their way to Augusta National,” said Payne.
As he worked out some final details in the days leading up to this competition, Bob Baldassari, the director of youth golf development for the PGA of America, said he was blown away by the way Augusta National members were treating this with the same attentiveness that they give the Masters.
“I’m more than excited to see this thing come to life,” said Baldassari and as he moved from station to station on a coolish morning at Augusta National, his commitment to the inaugural competition was validated.
“It’s more than I could have dreamed about,” he said.
Imagine, then, how Xu and the other winners felt:
- Treed Huang of Katy, Texas, boys’ 7-9;
- Luci Li of Redwood City, Calif., girls’ 10-11;
- Leo Cheng of Northridge, Calif., boys’ 10-11;
- Natalie Pietromonaco of Auburn, Calif., girls’ 12-13;
- Bryson Bianco of Tallahassee, Fla., boys’ 12-13;
- Hunter Pate of Las Vegas, girls’ 14-15;
- Patrick Welch of Providence, R.I., boys’ 14-15.
Each of them received a trophy, then were brought in to the press center, just like Scott and Watson and O’Meara had been after they had won at Augusta.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” said Pietromonaco as Welch was still trying to digest the euphoria of his effort at the 18th. Having slam-dunked his final stroke of the competition to win his age division, the kid from Metacomet CC in East Providence wore a wide smile.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come down to Augusta (National),” he said.
A walk-off home run? A further correction is needed. This was a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to win Game 7 of the World Series.