More than 140 boys and girls came to the Par Tee Golf Center in West Columbia, S.C., on Saturday to participate in local qualifying for Drive, Chip and Putt, the first step on a journey that, for 80 boys and girls, leads to Augusta National Golf Club next April – and a special aura filled the air.
The players, aged 7-15, ranged from a National Finalist earlier this year and another who barely missed a trip to Augusta National, to some who had never picked up a golf club before Saturday. Dads giving pep talks designed to calm jittery nerves, and moms providing “do-your-best” hugs created memorable moments. The shots, good and bad, earned fist bumps to applaud the effort.
“We have kids from all walks of life, and seeing families involved and having fun…it’s super-exciting,” said Jessica Asbury, PGA REACH Carolinas Coordinator for the PGA of America’s Carolinas Section, which oversaw the first of 15 local qualifiers in the Carolinas.
“Excited” is the word to describe Rion Stork, a second-grader from West Columbia who had never played golf. Picking up a club for the first time, he worked on his chipping with a smile on his face while his dad snapped pictures.
“His mom (Kim) saw information about Drive, Chip and Putt and asked him out of the blue if he would like to try,” his dad, Neal, said. “He said, ‘Yes,’ and here we are.”
One of Rion’s chips would have done a pro proud, and he called the experience “fun, a good time.” His dad said, “After his first drive, he got into it. If he likes the game, we’ll get him lessons.”
Stella Cianciolo, a 7-year-old from Charleston, S.C., came away from the awards ceremony with a fist full of ribbons and smile as big as Texas.
“I love golf,” she said after finishing third in the Girls 7-9 age division. She has been playing for about 18 months and just began lessons. She finished first, second and second in the three skill competitions (Drive, Chip and Putt) and her parents, Derek and Shea, joked, “We know what we have to work on.”
Stories like Rion Stork’s and Stella Cianciolo’s typified the day.
Evan Crooks, who plays all sports and ventures onto the golf course once or twice a month with his family, won the Boys 10-11 age division after scoring a 55 (of a possible 75) points in chipping.
“Fifty-five in chipping? Wow! How’d you do that? Chip one in?” Tom Mason, the PGA professional who owns Par Tee and is a driving force in junior golf, asked Crooks.
With a shy smile, the youngster who participates in Aiken’s First Tee program, nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” His dad, Lane, said they had played a family round the previous Sunday and Evan had chipped well. “I told him, ‘If you do that (in the competition), you’ll do great.’ He doesn’t have a coach, but he has been involved with golf since he could hold a club.”
Luke Parsons, from Salley, S.C., who finished third in the Boys 7-9 age group at Augusta National in April, moved up to the 10-11 division this year and placed second behind Crooks. Parsons, distinctive in his bucket hat and pre-shot routines, called driving his strength, and that showed. Although he “tugged” his first shot, he pounded his second more than 180 yards and his third past the 170-yard mark.
In addition to his third place at Augusta National in April, Parsons has won age-group world titles in the U.S. Kids and IMG Academy programs.
Jonathon (Deuce) Nimmo of West Columbia barely missed qualifying for the April National Finals – “by one-half inch,” he said in recalling regional qualifying last September. He moved up to the Boys 12-13 division this year and sweated out results before advancing. “I can do better,” he said while keeping an eye on the scoreboard.
Scenes like Saturday’s will unfold throughout the summer at 290 sites around the country. The top three in each of eight age groups --- four for boys and four for girls --- advance to subregional qualifying. The top two in each division then move on to the regionals. Those who advanced from Par Tee on Saturday will play at Fort Jackson Golf Club in Fort Jackson, S.C., in August.
Biff Lathrop, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association, and Justin Fleming, who heads the South Carolina Junior Golf Association, came to Par Tee to observe. Their associations will conduct two local qualifiers later this summer.
The South Carolina junior program has been ranked the nation’s best by one national publication, and Lathrop said, “Getting involved with Drive, Chip and Putt is great. You have the kids on the golf course, families involved and a lot of fun. This program is right up our alley. Being involved is exciting.”
Exciting – Rion Stork, Stella Cianciolo, Evan Crooks and all the players and parents who spent Saturday at Par Tee would agree.