MINNEAPOLIS – Eight inches. That was how close Sam Udovich came to being a National Champion at the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National in April of 2018. Had the last of his three putts been that much closer to the cup, he would have finished first instead of second in the Boys 10-11 division.
Thanks to an impressive performance Saturday in the regional qualifier at Interlachen Country Club, Udovich will get another shot at the National Finals.
This time, a now 12-year-old Udovich will play in the Boys 12-13 division.
As usual, Udovich displayed his best stuff first. The strongest part of his game is driving, which is the first skills competition. Udovich, despite being 5 feet 6 inches tall and only weighing 105 pounds, hits his driver with considerable pop. On Saturday, he cranked out two drives of 255 yards (20 points each) and a third one that traveled 245 yards (19 points) to take the lead with 59 points.
“Those first two were two of the best drives I’ve ever hit,” said Udovich, who lives in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and is a seventh grader at Friendly Hills Middle School.
The third one wasn’t bad either, especially when you consider that Saturday was gorgeous, with bright blue skies, temperatures that barely rose above 60 and a northeast wind of 10 mph. The first hole at Interlachen, where the driver competition took place, faces north, so all competitors had to hit their tee shots into the wind.
In Drive, Chip and Putt competitions, the driving grid is 40 yards wide. It could have been 15 yards wide and all three of Udovich’s tee shots still would have been in bounds, which is typical.
Udovich's overall total of 150 points helped him secure a third appearance in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals.
It will be Avery Zweig’s third time, as well. Like Udovich, Zweig, of McKinney, Texas, dominated the driving in the Girls 12-13 division, scoring 51 points (three drives of 220 to 230 yards). She caught one of her chips a little heavy to score only 37 points in that competition. She sealed the deal, however, by holing her six-foot putt and her 15-footer, then leaving her 30-footer within a foot of the cup.
Zweig has a history of doing well in national and international events that she qualifies for multiple times. She finished in the top four at the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship, played annually at Pinehurst Resort, each of the past four years before breaking through in August to win with a 54-hole score of 10-under 206.
On Saturday at Interlachen, a different Texan, Ava Frazier, was the first player to punch her ticket to Augusta. Frazier won the Girls 7-9 division with 122 points. Unlike most of the other qualifiers at Interlachen, she didn’t start playing golf as soon as she could walk. When she was 7, she broke her ankle playing basketball. The day the cast was taken off, she took up golf and has been playing ever since.
Mitchell Shroyer, winner of the Boys 7-9 division, has been playing since he was 2. His father, Billy, was not an avid golfer at the time.
“I took up the game late,” Billy said. When asked how much he plays these days, he replied, “A lot more now. So much that it hurts.”
McKenna Nelson claimed Saturday’s biggest margin of victory with a 34-point cushion in the Girls 10-11 division. As young as she is, the 10-year-old from Beaver Dam, Wis., can already hit a driver 200 yards. That gave her a big head start on her way to scoring 135 points.
Despite advancing from his local qualifier, Logan Keeter and his parents thought he could do better, so the 10-year-old from Northbrook, Ill., began taking lessons. He also got a new driver and new wedges. After he made it through his subregional qualifier, he wanted to try a different putter, which he used on Saturday.
“He never had all of the same clubs in any of the three stages,” said his father, David, after Logan won the Boys 10-11 division.
Ashleyjen Powell, the Girls 14-15 division winner, started her sports career in Louisiana playing T-Ball. She liked hitting the ball but wasn’t too crazy about being in the field. She switched her allegiance to golf, which requires no fielding.
Her family moved to Appleton, Wis., in 2017, which reduced her golf season, but she said she really didn’t mind.
“In Louisiana,” she noted, “it gets so hot in the summer that you really don’t want to go outside anyway. It’s much nicer in the summer up here — and I love snow.”
There were two home-grown qualifiers in Udovich and Andrew Ramos, the Boys 14-15 winner. He lives in Blaine, Minn., which is also home to the TPC Twin Cities, site of Minnesota’s annual PGA Tour event, the 3M Championship.
Ramos put together 167 points, the highest score of the day. Even though he’s barely five feet tall and doesn’t weigh 100 pounds, he averaged more than 240 yards per drive, and he scored 55 points each in both putting and chipping.
He pointed out that putting in Drive, Chip and Putt competitions isn’t quite the same as putting in a regular round of golf because on the course, hitting a putt two feet, one inch past the hole isn’t a big deal. You still have an easy putt coming back. But in Drive, Chip and Putt, rolling a putt that far past costs you 10 points.
“In these (qualifiers),” he said, “it’s actually more important to have the speed right than it is to drain the putt.”
To get to Augusta National, strategy is key.