HAVEN – Joshua Pehl sat on the edge of a folding chair in front of the scoreboard at the Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier at Whistling Straits, his head buried in his hands.
The 14-year-old golfer from Sugar Grove, Ill., couldn’t bear to watch as the last few scores in the Boys 14-15 age division were posted Saturday. After several agonizing minutes, the scoring was complete and Pehl’s point total was still the highest.
The impact of what he’d just accomplished unleashed a flood of emotions. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he hugged his parents, Alan and Kirsten Pehl.
One year after finishing third in a regional at The Honors Course in Tennessee, Pehl is going to Augusta National.
“I was just so thankful for the opportunity to even have a chance to go to Augusta and then as the last score came in I was just shocked and happy,” he said. “So many emotions were going through my head. It was crazy.”
On a sunny but cool day at the site of three PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup, eight young golfers earned trips to Augusta National Golf Club for the 2019 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, scheduled for April 7, the Sunday before the Masters Tournament.
The qualifiers advanced from a field of 96 youngsters, 12 in each of four age categories for boys and girls.
Among them was 9-year-old Lilian She of Buffalo Grove, Ill., who won the Girls 7-9 division. Her older sister, 12-year-old Chelsea, made it to the 2017 National Finals but lower back and shoulder injuries prevented her from entering this year.
The sisters, whose parents, Liwen and Jing, moved from China to the Chicago area two decades ago, sobbed in each other’s arms during a touching Golf Channel interview.
“This summer, especially, she worked so hard,” Chelsea said of her younger sister. “It’s amazing she’s got this opportunity to play on such a wonderful and amazing course. I’ve been through it, too; it’s something everyone should experience.
“It’s amazing that my little sister is going to Augusta. I’m so proud to be her older sister.”
The Girls 14-15 division came down to a playoff between friends Sarah Balding of Brookfield, Wis., and Shannyn Vogler of Sherrard, Ill., after both girls posted identical scores of 141 in the skills competition (three drives, three chips from about 15 yards and putts from 6, 15 and 30 feet).
The playoff consisted of one drive, one chip and a 30-foot putt. With the sun setting and shadows growing long, Balding edged Vogler and qualified for the National Finals.
“I met Shannyn in a golf tournament maybe like four years ago and we’ve played together a few times since,” said Balding. “We text and play practice rounds together here and there. I think it was a great experience to play the playoff with her.
“It was nerve-wracking but there are little things I tell myself that I learned from my sister to help me calm down.”
Balding’s older sister, Emily, is a member of the DePauw University golf team. Sarah is a freshman at Brookfield Central High School in her hometown and missed a varsity match to compete in the DCP.
“My whole team was supporting me out here and rooting for me and I was rooting for them,” she said.
Eight-year-old Luciano Giangrossi of Evanston, Ill., dressed in orange from head to toe like his favorite golfer, Rickie Fowler, won the Boys 7-9 division.
“He laid out his clothes last night,” said Giangrossi’s father, Anthony Giangrossi. “He watches every tournament. He just wants to play non-stop.”
Ten-year-old Ryder Carlson of Minnetonka, Minn., won the Boys 10-11 division. And, yes, he was named after the Ryder Cup.
“All the males in my family have an ‘R’ starting their first name,” said Carlson’s father, Ryan Carlson. “I’m Ryan, my dad is Robin, my grandpa is Royal. And so we needed an ‘R’ name and I was going through all the unique names out there and it felt like with the caveat of being somewhat golf-related it was very fitting. That’s how we landed on Ryder.”
Bella Leonhart of Marine On St. Croix, Minn., who celebrated her 11th birthday on Thursday [Sept. 6], won the Girls 10-11 division. Bella and her mother, Joselyn, also show their two paint horses.
“It’s quite the mother-daughter relationship,” said Bella’s father, Tom Leonhart. “Joselyn gets all the credit … endless hours of taking Bella to the range.”
Joseph Luchtenburg, 12, of West Chicago, Ill., won the Boys 12-13 division.
“It’s still hard to believe I’m going to Augusta National,” he said.
Thirteen-year-old Kathryn VanArragon of Blaine, Minn., won the Girls 12-13 division and will be making her second trip to Augusta National. She also competed in the 2016 DCP National Finals.
“That experience was amazing,” she said. “It was super, super fun. It was beautiful and I’m excited to go back. Not making it last year really did motivate me. I think that was a learning experience for me. I didn’t get to go, and it really helped me this year.”