By John Steinbreder
It seems strange to call anyone in the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship a veteran, given that no one in the field is older than age 15. But there are five golfers in this year’s competition—Kelly Xu, Logan Medcalf, Conner Willett, Ashley Gilliam and Christine Wang—who can reasonably be described as experienced, their youthfulness notwithstanding, because they participated in the inaugural edition of the event in 2014.
The face that will be most familiar to players and patrons is that of Kelly Xu, a precocious 10-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., who could most recently be seen sharing the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon stage in New York City with 2014 Masters winner Bubba Watson. She has a personality as stellar as the game that made her the winner of her division (Girls 7-9) last year, and she gushes about how good it is to be back.
“To experience Drive, Chip and Putt for the first time last year was amazing,” Kelly said. “Now, to be able to do it a second time, I can make a really exciting memory.”
Kelly says that winning in 2014 only made her work harder to earn a return trip.
“The people from the Masters told us we would be attempting to make putts of 15 and 30 feet for this year’s competition, so I have been practicing those lengths a lot,” she explained. “I have also been working on my driving, and over the last year I have been able to add a few yards off the tee.”
“Of course, I want to win my division again,” Kelly said. “But the most important thing is for me to have fun, do my best and have the best possible experience.”
Ashley Gilliam from Manchester, Tenn., is delighted to be back as well, once again competing in the 12-13 division. “Last year was so much fun, and that made it a little harder to qualify this year, really knowing this time around what I was playing for,” she said. “But I practiced a lot, hitting drives between stakes on the practice range of my club to improve my accuracy. I also tried to find greens that were really fast to practice on, but it was hard to find anything like those at Augusta.”
“Of course, I want to win my division again. But the most important thing is for me to have fun, do my best and have the best possible experience.” - Kelly Xu
Another player in the Girls 12-13 division, Christine Wang of Houston, also felt the difficulty of qualifying again knowing all that awaited her at Augusta if she made it through.
“It was also hard because I competed against a very good friend of mine in the regionals,” Christine said. “I was behind her after the chipping, by a lot. But then I did really well in the driving. I just gripped it and ripped it, and I ended up beating her by two points. I felt kind of bad because she was my friend. But I was really glad to be able to come back here again. “
Not surprisingly, Wang is most excited about the actual competition. “But we had so much fun being here for the Masters practice round on Monday as well,” she said. “I got a lot of autographs last year during that, and I followed Rickie and Phil for a while. This year, I want to follow Tiger. He was not playing last year, and I was really happy to hear that he is playing in this Masters.”
Logan Medcalf, a fourth-grader from Lynden, Wash., came excruciatingly close to winning the Boys 7-9 division in 2014, finishing second by two points. So he is especially excited about this year’s competition and the opportunity to return to Augusta.
"It's also cool to be back because we get to meet new players that we haven't met before," said Logan, who swings all his woods, irons and wedges right-handed—with a cross-handed grip—but putts lefty.
Medcalf has some words of wisdom for new players. His advice applies to tour pros as much as it does to the youngsters competing in Drive, Chip and Putt. "Be prepared to have people watching you and staring at you,” he said. “Don't look at them, and just focus on your golf game."