LA JOLLA, Calif. – The Pacific Ocean was in clear view of the competitors, as it often is on fall afternoons at Torrey Pines Golf Course. You couldn’t miss the breeze off the water, nor the conga line of weekend players seeking golf karma from walking in the footsteps of Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Yes, Torrey Pines is not only replete with the atmosphere you can only find on an ocean-adjacent course, it brings its own history along for the ride. The place Tiger won his 14th and most recent major championship nine years ago on a broken leg and the course Casper and Mickelson grew up learning the game played host to Saturday’s Western regional qualifier for the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.
But while the Pacific was in clear view, those competitors who managed to navigate a fiercely competitive Southern California qualifying process in the eight age and gender divisions didn’t treat Saturday as a day at the beach. And, true to form, Torrey Pines – hosting its third Drive, Chip and Putt regional – didn’t disappoint on the history front.
Torrey Pines’ winners include the first Hawaiian competitor: Kate Nakaoka, from Mililani, Hawaii, who advanced to next April’s Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National. It will send a distant relative of former Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Victoria Romney of Draper, Utah, to Augusta. And it will send that rarest of species – a Drive, Chip and Putt rookie – to the Finals: Anna Fang of San Diego.
Despite not winning any of the three disciplines, Nakaoka won the Girls 10-11 division with 114 points, vanquishing 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finalist Kristina Xu of Claremont, Calif. in the process. Romney, whose father Marty, said that Mitt Romney’s “dad was my grandfather’s second cousin,” won the Girls 12-13 division by five points (135-130) over Arin Chian of Ventura, Calif.
Fang made some history of her own, reaching the Finals on her very first attempt after the 8-year-old won the Girls 7-9 division by two points (102-100) over Mia Nakaoka, who made a furious bid to join her older sister in the National Finals field.
“I’m feeling really excited to go to Augusta, because I get to see all the famous players,” said Fang, who credited her last chip – good for 20 points out of a possible 25 – for getting her there. “When I watch this on TV, I really wanted to try this because I really wanted to go to Augusta. I’m really proud of myself now.”
The pride was as prevalent as the ocean breezes. Marty Romney couldn’t stop smiling when he remembered how Victoria rebounded from finishing 10th out of 10 competitors at the Olympic Club regional last year. And Victoria couldn’t stop smiling when she remembered how she made her first two putts Saturday and how her last drive kicked off a hill right into the grid.
“I kept going this year, even if I had a hard break or putt and I made sure to keep going this time,” she said.
“I think remembering last year propelled her to work harder and it got her up to the top spot. She learned a lot and it taught her there’s a lot of good players,” Marty Romney said.
That’s the first thing Kate Nakaoka saw when she watched the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on TV.
“A lot of people drive the ball very far and their short game is very good. Mine isn’t as good as theirs on TV, but it’s OK,” she said.
Whatever nerves Nakaoka has are more than made up for by the chatty likes of Kai Hirayama of Arcadia, Calif., who won the Boys 10-11 division with the second highest score of any competitor – 162 points. He swept all three disciplines and is anxious to play at Augusta National on the Sunday before Masters week.
“I want to really be there. I want to win this and I want to be on TV,” said Hirayama, who said he’s “mixed up on who he’s going to take.”
That’s a pleasant problem Hirayama, Nakaoka, Romney and Fang will share with fellow age-group winners Cole Kim (Boys 7-9) of La Crescenta, Calif., who breezed to 149 points and a 21-point victory; Logan Gonzalez of Thousand Oaks, Calif, who won the Boys 12-13 division with the day’s top score (164); Elkim DonDon Bumacod of Sylmar, Calif., who captured the Boys 14-15 division with 160 points and the day’s top score in any discipline when he carded 73 out of 75 points in driving; and Mackenzie McRee of Tucson, Ariz., who won the Girls 14-15 division with 138 points.
Nikki Gatch, the regional league manager for the PGA of America and the emcee for Saturday’s festivities, found herself basking in the history and the moment as much as the competitors.
“When you come to something like this and you see how engaged and how excited these kids are about the game of golf and how committed they are and how committed their families are, you know our game is in a good place,” she said. “You see a lot of raw emotion here on both ends of the spectrum and as a golf professional and as a parent, that’s pretty cool. That’s pretty special.”