Sunday before the Masters never looked quite like this before.
In addition to a few early-arriving Masters participants, there were young girls and boys, some of them barely taller than their drivers, hitting balls off the tee of the Tournament Practice Facility and chips in the short-game area. Other participants in the National Finals of the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt competition were trying to drain putts on the main practice green between the first and 10th greens and on the 18th green, from more or less the same position from which Adam Scott made his dramatic birdie on the 72nd hole last year.
And whereas the grounds of Augusta National have heretofore been closed to the public on the day before Masters practice rounds officially begin, the Club bustled this morning and into the early afternoon with the unbridled excitement of youth. Cheering on the participants were not only their family members but also admiring patrons who had purchased badges for the event.
Started in 2013 by the Masters Tournament Foundation, the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America as a way to promote interest and participation in golf, the Drive, Chip and Putt is a nationwide youth skills competition. It began last summer with a total of 110 local qualifying events, where top finishers advanced to 11 regional qualifiers. From there, 88 golfers—44 girls and 44 boys—earned berths in the finals, which has four age groups in each gender: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15.
The finals began at 7:30 Sunday morning. As young as many of the competitors were, they exhibited the mannerisms of golfers four and five times their ages, expertly lining up drives from behind their balls, looking at putts from several angles and giving their chips proper consideration from different vantage points. Putts that fell into the cup induced modest fist pumps and raised putters, while those that came up or slid by on the fast Augusta National greens caused gestures with their hands at breaks they hadn’t been able to see.
Each player was announced at the start of each facet of the competition, eliciting polite applause from the patrons, as did their shots, no matter how they turned out. Participants often high-fived a parent, sibling or friend after they hit. Perfect strangers reached across the ropes for fist-pumps. Shortly after the winners of the 7-9 girls and boys divisions were announced, the Club put their names up on the main leader board by the 18th green. And after trophies had been handed out to the top three finishers in each group, they posed for photographs under the iconic live oak behind the Clubhouse.
Later in the morning, a number of Masters contestants started to arrive at the range, and several watched the young golfers hit their drives, chips and putts. Former Masters champion Bubba Watson walked up and down the tee to shake hands with some of the players, while Matteo Manassero and Scott Stallings observed a portion of the competition from outside the caddie locker room at the far end of the practice facility before beginning to warm up for their practice rounds. Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner, attended the awards ceremonies in his Green Jacket.
“Augusta National and the Masters have given these kids such a gift by giving them this opportunity,” said Manassero, who played in his first Masters when he was 16 and now at 21 is about to begin competing in his third. “It was not so long ago that I was 14 years old and dreaming of playing here, so I understand how good and excited they feel.”
Stallings expressed similar sentiments. “It is pretty awesome the way that Augusta National is using its position in golf to provide these opportunities to these boys and girls,” he said. “They may not know it now, but this is a real once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. And if they didn’t love golf before, they will now love it forever, because it doesn’t get any better than this.”