PALM COAST, Fla. – A steady stream of eager youngsters dressed in Rickie Fowler-orange and Lexi Thompson-pink paraded into the practice areas of Grand Haven Golf Club in Palm Coast, Fla., for the official start of the 2020 qualifying season for Drive, Chip and Putt.
Opening day came in Florida on Saturday, May 4, to begin local qualifying, which will extend nationwide this summer. Boys and girls, ages 7 to 15, can play in more than 300 local events across all 50 states with the opportunity to advance and earn an invitation to the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, April 5, 2020. Organized in partnership by the PGA of America, the USGA and the Masters Tournament, the program is now in its sixth year.
Following all the skill competitions at Grand Haven, the top-three happy finishers in each of the four age divisions, boys and girls, held their ribbons aloft for photos and smiled for parents.
But amid the gap-toothed smiles and kisses for mom and dad, most of the young contestants were already thinking about their next event – the subregional qualifier in August at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., to springboard toward the autumn regional qualifier. Winners at the 10 regional events, held at top USGA and PGA championship venues, move on to the National Finals at Augusta National, which are televised on Golf Channel.
“I’ve played in the local qualifying four times and advanced into the regionals two years ago, but I finished fourth,” said sixth grader Trevor Challice of Palm Coast, Fla., who won the Boys 10-11 competition on Saturday. “I didn’t miss by much, so now I really want to go to Augusta.”
Excited kids and parents funneled in on qualifying day with brothers, sisters, grandparents, neighbors and coaches there to cheer them on. Carrying tiny little bags of junior clubs sporting colorful golf togs, participants stepped up to the tee wearing Masters-logoed visors, while others wore the colors of their favorite universities.
There were also well-used junior sets and borrowed clubs at the free event open to all skill levels. Some players striped their drives and held swing poses as their golf balls sailed toward intended targets. Other kids with less experience used the local qualifier as a learning opportunity – taking their swings and observing others to learn.
“We’ve had several girls and boys here playing for the first time in their first attempt at Drive, Chip and Putt,” said Mike Keck, player development manager of the North Florida PGA Section, which organized and conducted the qualifier. “It’s exciting to have newcomers because it’s a way to get the kids into the game and these kids are the future of the industry.”
Some of the juniors watched nervously as their age-division scores were posted. Little girls held hands. Others were calm, with one boy quietly read a Harry Potter book in the shade of the scoreboard.
But kids didn’t have to win their age group to experience success or find reason for hugs and high fives.
Gavyn Shepard of Temple Terrace, Fla., and Ryan Houck of Fleming Island, Fla., tied for first in the Boys 12-13 age group putting competition. Both sank their six-foot, 15-foot and 30-foot putts to share winning honors with perfect scores of 75. Shepard finished second and Houck finished third overall in their age division, but were thrilled with their respective putting performances.
Miles Russell, finishing third in the Boys 10-11 age group, and Girls 14-15 winner Alexandra Gazzoli of Palm Coast, Fla., came one step closer to returning to Augusta National, where each has competed in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals.
“I’ll always remember the practice facility and the 18th green at Augusta National,” said Russell, 10, of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., who competed in the 2018 National Finals.
“It was a dream come true and hopefully, I can make it again,” said Gazzoli, 13, who also earned an invitation to the National Finals in 2018. “I got Jon Rahm’s autograph and a hug from Sergio Garcia. I still want to meet Rickie Fowler.”
And while she won the Girls 12-13 local event, Danielle Dailey of St. Augustine, Fla., plans to focus on “not being so nervous on my first shot.”
Another contestant, Yuriy Dekalskyy of Jacksonville, Fla., said he wants a chance to make it to the National Finals in his sixth Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying attempt.
“I’ve been practicing a lot and getting more confident in my game,” said Dekalskyy, 14. “I feel really confident this year.”
One father, Eric Stratton of Saint Johns, Fla., watched as his daughter, Grace, competed in the Girls 7-9 event and son, Buck, competed in the Boys 7-9 division. His children followed Jordan Spieth this year, shot for shot, on the Masters mobile app. Now, his kids regularly ask if they can practice golf.
“When I take them to practice, they’re always putting or chipping ‘for the Green Jacket,’” said Stratton. “I told [Gracie] they now have a women’s amateur tournament [girls] can win at Augusta National.”
And while his children are young and just getting started in the game, Stratton says the youngsters “are having fun” wherever they play.
Stratton added that programs like Drive, Chip and Putt are investing in young players’ futures saying, “It’s making a tremendous difference for so many kids.”