Summer-long local qualifying for 2019 Drive, Chip and Putt began on Saturday with a sense of redemption, family loyalty and, most of all, pure joy.
The site was TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the PGA Tour’s highly anticipated tournament, THE PLAYERS, tees off next week. A handful of Tour players were practicing, most notably Harris English, who signed a couple autographs in between practice putts, and Cameron Smith, who hoisted the honorary first drive for the competition at the practice facility. Golf Channel cameras roamed the grounds as the children arrived and hit drives on the 18th hole and chips and putts on the facility’s practice green. Pure conditions and a slight breeze were present as 212 local qualifiers ambled about from early morning to late afternoon.
“I was able to play with my mates back home in Australia when I was young, but nothing like this,” Smith said as he was surrounded to obtain autographs and pictures from Drive, Chip and Putters and their families. “Any time we can get kids to play golf and play with such enthusiasm it’s a win-win for golf.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment occurred in early afternoon when the Boys 12-13 division was winding up. As scores were being posted, Braden Schnaible anxiously walked back and forth from the scoreboard to where his family was seated. Schnaible, a rising sixth grader in Savannah, Ga., was attempting to qualify for a fourth time with little previous success. But this time he won the chipping competition and was in third place overall, tenuously in position to advance among the top three in his age division.
Braden was nervous, but his father, Scott, was beside himself. He walked about 100 yards away from the scoreboard to take his mind off the frantic finish and began a conversation with course maintenance workers who were prepping the second green. As the final scores were posted and Braden’s place secured, the youngster took off running and lost his hat as he told his father the good news.
“Braden’s a good player, but last year he mishit a couple of chips in the local qualifier,” said Scott, an Air Force veteran. “He sat under a tree and was quite upset. He said that he didn’t mind losing but didn’t want to beat himself.”
Braden got the notion to qualify a few years back while watching the Golf Channel broadcast of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on the Sunday before the Masters. Ever since, he has been anxious to compete. As an added treat, Braden will join his father and grandfather in volunteering for THE PLAYERS next week.
“I just wanted to do well and this is really something,” said Braden, who joins the top three in each group for boys and girls in advancing to the subregional qualifier, scheduled for August 25 at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla. The qualifiers from there are scheduled to return to TPC Sawgrass on Sept. 29 as one of the last opportunities for winners to advance to Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, the Sunday before the 2019 Masters Tournament.
Briel Royce could understand Braden’s plight, but on a different level. The Orlando, Fla., 8-year-old was the second to tee off Saturday morning in the Girls 7-9 division and she won going away. Last year, she reached the regional qualifier and placed second, a couple shots away from
making a first-ever trip to Augusta National.
“I just want to make it to the Masters,” the Lake Nona third grader said. “I almost did it last year and now I’m back to try again.”
George Robards of Jacksonville had mixed emotions about his day. He dominated the Boys 7-9 division in the morning, wearing his lucky faded green Masters visor as his father, Chris, sported a green Masters cap. Older brother Henry, competing in the Boys 12-13, was happily cheering his younger brother on. When the afternoon session came for Henry, George gave him a big hug before the driving competition began. Alas, difficulty in the chipping competition prevented Henry from advancing.
“I played OK last year and I played great this year,” George, 8, said. “I wish my brother had done better.”
Whether they moved on to the next round or not, participants were treated to a full-scale golf experience on Saturday. In addition to the competition, everyone was invited to take complimentary tours of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse and island-green 17th hole. They also were able to hit a shot on the replica 17th green, a one-quarter length version of the real thing that is set up for spectators in the entertainment village for THE PLAYERS.
Saturday’s qualifier, which participants could enter at no charge, was the first of more than 290 local qualifiers nationwide, with an entry deadline of five days before. Boys and girls, ages 7-15, have chances to try in all 50 states throughout the months of May, June, July and August.
The end result for Saturday’s first qualifier and others to follow is that 80 finalists – 40 boys and 40 girls – will make it to Augusta National next spring.