Anticipation Runs High on Eve of Finals

It was a chamber of commerce day for golf at The River Golf Club, with sapphire skies, slight breezes and temperatures hovering in the mid-60s. But that was only part of the reason why the teenagers congregated at this North Augusta retreat were smiling so broadly Saturday morning. It was also the result of their being among the 80 golfers from around the United States and Canada to qualify for the National Finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.

When the competition takes place Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club, they will be hitting drives and chips at the Tournament Practice Area and putting on the 18th green.

“Being here is new for me, and new is fun and exciting,” said 13-year-old Evan Chien, a slender, long-hitting youngster from Irvine, Calif. “I am having a good practice session this morning, and this afternoon I am going to play a round of golf at The River Golf Club. Then tomorrow, I get to go to Augusta National.”

Just as palpable as the youngsters’ excitement was a tone of seriousness to their preparation. Take Kayla Bryant, a 9-year-old girl from Boca Raton, Fla. Clad in a pink shirt and skirt and wearing her sandy brown hair in a ponytail, she bounced a golf ball off the face of her wedge as she walked to the practice green at the River Club. “I am just going through my regular routine,” said Bryant. “Putt, chip and then hit drives. I do it backwards, but that is the way I prepare. And I want to treat this like any tournament back home.”

Kayla Bryant juggles a golf ball at The River Golf Club on the Saturday before the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals.

For many players, this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals has a sense of home about it. Bryant said that her best friend from Boca Raton, Chloe Kovelesky, was in the finals of the Girls 10-11 division. Among those who will be watching Chien at Augusta National on Sunday is his 11-year-old sister, Leigh, who finished fourth in last year’s DCP. “I am happy to be here for him,” she explained, sounding like a dutiful kid sister. “But it would be more fun to be competing.”

A similar situation exists for another family from Southern California, the Sams. Twelve-year-old Nalani Sam was getting ready to compete in Sunday’s National Finals one year after her big sister Kayla won the Girls 12-13 division by draining a putt on the 18th green. She was presented with a trophy by three-time Masters champion Gary Player.

Kayla Sam failed to make it past the second round of qualifying this year, but that hardly dampened her spirits as she watched Nalani practice. “It’s OK,” Kayla said. “I just like being here in Augusta.”

So does everyone else.