By Michael Curet
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- "The "Road to Augusta" for more than 200 kids started Saturday in the first leg of the 2018 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Appropriately on one of the greatest golf stages in the world -- the Stadium Course -- the event had all the drama of a final round at THE PLAYERS.
At the end of the day, 24 players advanced -- three in each of the four boys and girls age groups. But from beginning to end, the event was about so much more than the competition.
Where else could you walk by for a close-up view of the island green on the 17th hole before walking over to hit a tee shot at the 18th? Before or after the competition, players could even hit a shot from a replica 17th hole -- a fan favorite venue that is open all week during THE PLAYERS.
Aside from the competition, perhaps the "coolest" and signature moment of the day came when 2016 PLAYERS champion Jason Day stopped to visit with a few lucky competitors, offer encouragement and sign a few autographs before heading over to the range to begin practicing for his title defense at THE PLAYERS.
Drive, Chip, and Putt scoring is based on a 25-point-per-shot basis, with each participant taking three shots per skill. The overall champion in each age category will be determined by the participant with the most points accumulated between all three skills (maximum of 225 points = 75 points per skill x 3).
Among Saturday's highlights in the competition was the play of Fleming Island junior golfer Tyler Mawhinney, who won the Boys 10-11 division Saturday with a score of 114, ahead of Jackson Byrd, son of PGA Tour player Jonathan Byrd, and Parker Green. Mawhinney was the only player in the field to compete in the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals last month at Augusta National, finishing tied for second.
The highest score recorded came in the boys 14-15 division, where Lake Mary's Chase Haygood sunk two putts and put another one in tap-in range for an overall total of 160. Jack Barned and Avery Erwin finished second and third to advance.
Garrett Roberson of St. Johns also made a couple of key putts to lift him to the winner's circle in the Boys 12-13 division, edging out Alex Libby 123-119. Brock Miller finished third.
"It's amazing how good the kids are getting," said two-time PGA TOUR winner Russell Knox, who, for the second year in a row, hit the ceremonial first Drive, Chip, and Putt to start the 2018 competition. "There are a lot of kids playing golf because of Drive, Chip and Putt. It's incredible. Today is a massive turnout and I hope it's the same all over the country. It's an honor for me to watch these kids."
Knox stepped up to the tee under sunny, but extreme blustery conditions, and like most of the competitors, tried to ignore the water on the left on the daunting 18th hole. To nobody's surprise, he hit it straight down the middle. And, in what has become somewhat of a family tradition, he joined other family members to watch his niece and nephew, Sofia and Anthony Rivera. As it turned out, in the Girls 7-9 division, Sofia Rivera improved from third place a year ago to win her age group this year, edging out Kennedy Hronek and Lindsey Mauldin.
Hronek is the niece of PGA professional David Hronek, who recently competed in the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard on the PGA TOUR.
"It's cool to watch my niece and nephew as well as all the others," said Knox. "There were some skills challenge games I competed in Scotland, but nothing like this. I would have loved to get the chance to do this."
It was just a coincidence that the list of starting times for Saturday's Drive, Chip and Putt included names like Crenshaw, Watson, Miller, Leonard, Johnson, except in the case of Furyk. The 2003 U.S. Open champion and highly accomplished PGA TOUR player Jim Furyk was on hand with his entire family to watch his daughter Cali and son Tanner take part in the competition and support the program.
"My kids enjoy the game, and play just once in a while," said Furyk. "This is fun for them and I just want them to have a good time. It actually reminds me of Punt, Pass and Kick, and I used to compete in those every year. I take my hat off to those three organizations (PGA of America, the USGA and the Masters Tournament) for putting it together. To have the first site here right in front of THE PLAYERS is pretty cool, and to have that weekend right before the Masters and to be on national television is phenomenal."
In the Boys 7-9 division, the third time was the charm for Jacksonville Beach's Miles Russell, who won the overall in his age group, with Lucas Gimenez and Finnley Buckley also qualifying.
Alexa Fallis, Jenna Leonard, and Aly Donoghue finished first, second, and third respectively in the Girls 10-11 division.
Donoghue's father, Canadian comedian and television host Gerry Dee perhaps traveled the farthest to get to TPC Sawgrass. He has made the Drive, Chip and Putt a family vacation for the last two years. The avid golf enthusiast traveled from Ontario, Canada, stopping last year at the Masters and this year at Disney World. His daughter Faith also competed in the Girls 7-9 division.
Tyler Ann Whiting won the Girls 12-13 category, followed by Ebby Somers and Cadence Lasher, and was the overall winner of all girls divisions with 119 points. In Girls 14-15, Julia Wallace finished first to qualify along with Laura Burton and Renata Jancsik.
Qualifying around the country will continue throughout the summer and early fall, and the final 80 qualifiers will compete in the National Finals next April at Augusta National prior to the start of the Masters.
For PGA North Florida Executive Director/CEO Rich Smith, the best of Drive, Chip and Putt is yet to come.
"You can see it on the faces of the children and families in the game of golf," said Smith. "It makes it so worthwhile. It's been a wonderful partnership and we're only starting year five. If we get 16-20 years down the road, I wouldn’t be so surprised if we see a Drive, Chip and Putt competitor or champion on any of the level end up at Augusta in the Masters. I think you are going to see that."