Champions are accorded special status at Augusta National, even, or perhaps especially, when they’re 9 years old and just 4 feet, 8 inches tall.
One day after winning her age group at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, Kelly Xu received a hero’s welcome from patrons who recognized her on Monday, the first day of official Practice Rounds at the Masters. She also was introduced to several of the pros who will be competing this week, including Jimmy Walker, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour this season, and veteran Jim Furyk.
“When I met them, I had this feeling that it is really an honor and a privilege because you’re meeting a real golfer who you see on television and who plays in the Masters,” said Xu, of Santa Monica, Calif.
On Sunday, at the National Finals of the youth skills competition, Xu became the first age-group winner after putting all of her might into a 161-yard drive, and then showing a deft short-game touch by holing a slippery 6-foot putt.
Patrick Welch, 14, of Providence, R.I., became the final Drive, Chip and Putt winner when he sank roughly the same putt on the 18th green that Adam Scott made on the 72nd hole en route to a playoff victory at last year’s Masters.
Like Xu, Welch was recognized by patrons Monday morning on the grounds of Augusta National. The afternoon before, he met former Masters champions Larry Mize and Tom Watson, who stepped away from his ball just before teeing off on No. 1 to shake Welch's hand.
“It’s amazing,” Welch said of his experience this week. “It’s just an honor to be at Augusta. I don’t know. It’s undescribable. I had a great time being on the golf course.”
A well-traveled junior golfer who used to live in San Francisco, Welch said no place he’s ever played compares to Augusta National.
“It’s just the prettiest course I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The grass is cut perfectly, the flowers on the golf course make it stand out, the history, everything.”
Roughly 17,000 junior golfers vied to gain entry into the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which began with local qualifying last year at courses across the country. From there, the top finishers advanced to one of 11 regional qualifiers, with the winners in each of the four age divisions for boys and girls earning a trip to Augusta National.
A field of 88 youngsters participated in the National Finals on Sunday, on the eve of Masters Week, as some of their heroes, including Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, looked on. Also cheering on the competitors were patrons who had purchased badges for the day.
Each entrant competed in all three skills, accumulating points in each. The driving and chipping portions of the competition were held at the Tournament Practice Facility. Then came the putting stage, which began with two delicate rolls, of 6 and 30 feet, on the practice putting green just off the first tee. For the third and final putt, each participant walked down the hill to the 18th green, where they attempted roughly the same putt that Adam Scott made on the 72nd hole at last year’s Masters en route to his playoff victory.
Two of the eight winners on Sunday matched Scott's feat and made the putt: Leo Cheng, 11, of Northridge, Calif., and Welch.
A joint initiative of the Masters Tournament, the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America, the Drive, Chip and Putt will be expanded next year to nearly triple the number of available spots at local qualifiers. More than 50,000 boys and girls will have the opportunity to compete at 256 host sites throughout all 50 states from May through July. Subregional and regional qualifiers will follow in August and September.
Once again, the top performers at the regionals will earn invitations to compete in the finals at Augusta National, one of the golf’s greatest stages, on the day before the Masters begins.
Xu, meanwhile, has one more goal when it comes to the home of the Masters.
“I’d really like to play a round with Condoleezza Rice at Augusta,” she said, referring to the former Secretary of State, who in 2012 became one of the Club’s first two women members and who was on hand Sunday to greet the Drive, Chip and Putt participants. “She said, ‘Just keep practicing and maybe the day will come.’”