By Michael Curet
There was a bit of irony Saturday on the Stadium Course for the first leg of local qualifying for the 2017 Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
When Zach Johnson arrived at TPC Sawgrass Saturday to get a little practice time in for the week’s upcoming PLAYERS, he wasn’t about to overshadow or be a distraction to any of the 210 kids that were trying to do what he was ultimately able to do as a professional – get to Augusta National and win.
The finals of the 2017 Drive, Chip & Putt Championship will be held at Augusta National April 2, 2017 or exactly one week before the 2017 final round of The Masters – a tournament that Johnson won in 2007.
The fact that TPC Sawgrass and Augusta National are respectively the first and last stops in the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship could be a perfect fit.
For the drive portion of the competition, participants were able to hit tee shots off of No. 18, a shot many of them have seen as fans in person or on television.
Bob Baldassari, PGA Director of Youth Golf Development, said Saturday there was no where else he would rather be.
“It's very special to start the whole season here,” said Baldassari. “This is an iconic facility. To have the kids hit their drive on No. 18 is fantastic and we want to make getting to Augusta a bucket list experience in their lives. We want Drive, Chip & Putt to be for every kid of every ability everywhere. We want to grow the game worldwide and it's so important to get more kids involved and retain them in the game.”
To break the ice, and start the competition, local PGA TOUR resident Russell Knox, who will be competing in this year’s PLAYERS, hit the first shot of the day – a 290-yard drive on an aggressive line which cleared the water and landed softly in perfect position in the fairway.
"This was very special for me today and it was an honor,” said Knox, whose niece (Sophia Rivera) and nephew (Anthony Rivera) competed in the event today with Sophia advancing with a third-place finish in the 7-9 girls division.
“I wish Drive, Chip & Putt existed when I was young,” added Knox. “It’s amazing. It gives kids a great opportunity to get into golf. It's fun, and the point system is cool. They always come out to cheer me on, so it’s nice to return the favor.”
PGA North Florida Section Executive Director Rich Smith was thrilled to have Knox on the tee box.
“I don't know if he'll take quite the aggressive line this coming week in THE PLAYERS because that could be very dangerous,” Smith joked. “He did want to inspire the kids and he was very gracious to come out and help us open up the season this year. We would certainly be happy to see him to do well this week."
Smith hopes for Drive, Chip & Putt to attract kids from all skill levels – beginner to advanced.
“There are a lot of experienced, very good players that we'll eventually see on the PGA TOUR,” said Smith. However, there are a lot of kids that have never played a round of golf yet and we want to see those kids too. It's a great gateway to introduce children to the sport. We see it even at the local level for kids that don't advance, how much they enjoy the competition, and how much they enjoy the family moments. This event on local level is as powerful as the national finals in Augusta. It’s really a heart-tugging thing and we're absolutely in love with it."
Another local who came out to watch his grandson was former PLAYERS champion Mark McCumber.
"The Drive, Chip & Putt is amazing,” said McCumber. “To me growing up in Jacksonville, it's a beautiful thing to see. I'm proud to see the PGA TOUR get behind them like this. My jaw dropped today when seeing that kids were playing off the 18th tee, and putting and chipping in the same place that the players will be practicing this week,” he said. “It's a wonderful opportunity for the kids and I'm proud to see it happen here.
Players receive from 1-25 points in each category. In driving, point distribution is based on distance, while in chipping and putting, points are based on closeness to the pin or going into the hole.
If fans watched the morning session of the younger groups at TPC Sawgrass, they were treated to an awesome display by Phillip Dunham, an 8-year-old Jacksonville native, who bombed three straight drives down the middle on the 18th – close to 200 yards on average, and put all his chips and putts close. It easily allowed him to win first place in the 7-9 boys division and accumulate more points in all three categories (137) than any other competitor in all divisions.
Dunham said he watched Knox’s tee shot and when it was his turn to step up to the tee, tried to put the water out of his mind. “I just imagined that the water was rough and I tried to forget about it.”
Dunham’s father Tim, who does not play much golf, admits his son has been interested in playing golf since he was old enough to stand up. However, the multi-sport athlete, who is considered big for his age, likes flag football best, and is an avid baseball player.
Already Dunham has played in an estimated 160 tournaments, according to his father, and has won two US Kids Golf World Championships. “He loves golf, but if it was up to him, he’d strap on the pads.”
“I’m just trying to get him through the second grade. I learned at a young age that he likes to swing anything and hit a ball,” said Dunham, who also has a 10-year-old daughter that does not play golf, but is supportive in her brother’s junior career. “Luckily, most of the golf tournaments are on the weekends except in the summer.”
A close second to Dunham in total points with 133 was Atlantic Beach’s Phillip Chandler, a 14-year-old who took up golf a little more than a year ago. Chandler, whose younger brother David played in the 10 and 11 division, scored 58 of his total points on drives – including one that was close to 280 yards.
His father Phil Chandler said, “I’ve been to Augusta as a fan, but I would love to see my kids get there.”
In the girls division, Mimi Chen of Longwood, Florida, won the 14-15 year-old division with 135 points, tops for all divisions among the girls.
"Inspiration is born on days like these,” said TPC Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes. “There's going to be somebody here that is going to be inspired and go on to do great things in the game of golf. We're lighting candles here today. Drive, Chip & Putt was the perfect idea at a time when we started to see junior golfers not coming to the game as they did in the past. This idea was born. Now 10 of thousands are coming out and they're going to more. Every year it's going to get better. They're being inspired. You never know what the future is going to bring."
Other girls advancing included Jacksonville’s Jenna Leonard winning the 7-9 group, followed by second and third place finishes by Bridget Lawrence and Rivera.
St. Augustine’s Nova Lekas won the girls 10-11, while Emma Lawrence finished second and Amelia Cobb was in third place.
Jacksonville’s Kylie Turner won the 12-13 girls, followed by Candace Jackson and Tylar Ann Whiting.
Renata Jancsik and Julia Wallace finished second and third behind Chen in the girls 14-15 division.
Also winning their respective divisions in the boys in addition to Dunham and Chandler were St. Augustine’s Anthony Lohbauer (10-11), and Chase Haygood (12-13) of Jacksonville.
Finishing third in the 7-9 boys was Jack Roberts. Jackson Sullivan and Grayson Blount finished second and third to advance in the 10-11 boys.
In the boys 12-13 division, finishing behind Haywood were Daniel Mazur and Cole Haygood (brother of Chase).
Justin Ortiguera finished second behind Chandler in the boys 14-15, followed by Connor Winter.
You can find the rest of the results here.