BETHESDA, Md. – Seven years ago, a baby-faced Rory McIlroy set a U.S. Open scoring record at a wet Congressional Country Club, winning his first major championship. On Sunday, the rain pelted Congressional much like it did in 2011. And just like it was then, youth was served on this historic course right outside the nation’s capital.
Eight young golfers earned their way through the Drive, Chip and Putt regional at Congressional, punching their tickets to Augusta National Golf Club for the National Finals, scheduled for Sunday, April 7, the day before the Masters Tournament. The eight winners on Sunday will get a taste of major-championship golf, hoping one day to celebrate the way McIlroy did on these soggy grounds not so long ago.
While the skies remained dark, the attitudes were anything but. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel served as sufficient motivation to power the players through the unyielding elements. And for the organizers and volunteers from the PGA of America, the effort didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.
“This was a special experience. I’m sure Augusta will be a special experience. The PGA does such an amazing job with these events,” said Shani Drogin, mother of Boys 14-15 Division champion Nathan Drogin, of Essex Fells, N.J. “The time, effort and energy they’ve spent to grow the game, both by doing the [PGA] Junior League, as well as the Drive, Chip and Putt, we’re all going to reap the rewards of that.”
Drogin, the day’s first player to advance to the National Finals, was competing in his fourth Drive, Chip and Putt, and his first regional qualifier. He was joined in the winner’s circle by an Augusta veteran and Girls 14-15 overall winner Megha Ganne, 14, of Holmdel, N.J.
Ganne advanced to the National Finals for the fourth time and is hoping to improve on a runner-up finish last year. Her enthusiasm in her accomplishment mirrored that of an overjoyed first-timer.
“It never gets old. I wish there was no age limit,” said Ganne, who advanced to match play in this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
“This is my last year, and I’m really excited to be going back.”
Speaking of the Girls’ Junior, Ganne will be joined by a friend and fellow competitor from the 2018 championship at Poppy Hills Golf Course. Sydney Yermish, 13, of Wynnewood, Pa., capped a momentous summer by booking her ticket to Augusta.
Yermish, who was inspired to play golf at a national level through her parents’ work in the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa., displayed her rapid improvement with a six-point victory in the Girls 12-13 division.
Yermish won the driving competition and finished third in chipping to make the National Finals. Her big summer was a confidence builder.
“It really helped a lot,” said Yermish of competing in the Girls’ Junior. “Playing with those players in that atmosphere helped me learn to play with pressure. The TV cameras will be on at Augusta, so playing in a championship like the Girls’ Junior will help my game translate to Augusta. If you can do that, you can do anything.”
In the Girls 10-11 division, Ellen Yu, was on Cloud 9, although she is 10 years old for only one more day. It’s hard to imagine a better 11th birthday present than a trip to Augusta National.
Yu won the driving and chipping competitions on her way to a 10-point victory in the age group.
“All I was thinking out there is that if I won I would be going to Augusta National,” she said.
The other age group winners of the day included: Matthew Vital, 12, of Bethlehem, Pa. (Boys 12-13); Mihir Roperia, 10, of Cranbury, N.J. (Boys 10-11); Rayhao Feng, 8, of Short Hills, N.J. (Boys 7-9); and Mckenzie Mueller, 8, of Wake Forest, N.C. (Girls 7-9).
While a trip to Augusta National was the ultimate prize of the day, the day’s mood lifted participants and spectators beyond the rainy weather.