By Vartan Kupelian
The images of the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship continue to resonate one year later.
Against one of golf's most alluring backdrops, Augusta National, there were the flapping pigtails of 11-year-old Lucy Li, who would go on to become the youngest qualifier ever at the U.S. Women’s Open. There were boys swinging drivers with cut-down shafts and urging their balls to stay within the grid on the practice range. On the 18th green, where so much Masters history has been made, teenagers were raising their arms to celebrate putts that fell.
From the exuberant golfers, ages 7 to 15, who participated, to Masters champions Adam Scott and Bubba Watson, who welcomed and celebrated them, everybody was delighted to be playing a part in the historic initiative.
Peter Jacobsen, who has been on the golf scene for four decades as a player and now a television commentator, worked on the broadcast team for last year’s live telecast on Golf Channel. He can hardly wait for the sequel.
“I think everybody was overwhelmed with how exciting the event was,” Jacobsen said.
Twelve months later, interest in the Drive, Chip and Putt continues to gather momentum.
The goal of the event—to introduce young people to golf at an early age and therefore grow the game—isn’t a new concept, but the way the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship was implemented made it a resounding success.
Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, said the Club’s involvement as host and, with the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America, co-founders of the event, comes from a sense of inherited responsbility.
“I think it's our charge simply because this is ‘follow the leader’ around here, and the leaders were Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts,” Payne said. “What they embraced more than anything else was their duty and obligation to give back to the game, and so we feel that same mandate. As long as we have the resources to do it, we're going to try to do it as best we can.”
Payne’s hope was that the goal of competing at Augusta National in the finals would become “a dream of kids all over the country.”
“We believe the incentive to ultimately qualify for a trip to Augusta will motivate kids to take part in this wonderful program,” Payne said. “Based on the smiles we continue to see from the participants and the outpouring of support and encouragement we hear from countless people who share our love for the game, I am completely confident this program will continue to improve, expand and inspire.”
Derek Sprague, president of the PGA of America, said the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship will continue to play an “integral role in encouraging more youngsters to experience a game they can enjoy for a lifetime.”
“We believe the incentive to ultimately qualify for a trip to Augusta will motivate kids to take part in this wonderful program.” - Billy Payne
The effort to promote the event and attract young golfers has exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts, with participation doubling from the first year. This year, 80 contestants– 40 boys and 40 girls, representing 30 states and Canada – will compete in the finals. The competition will be telecast live on Sunday morning by Golf Channel.
“Our vision for Drive, Chip and Putt is to inspire a new generation to choose golf as a recreational sport,” said Tom O’Toole, Jr., president of the USGA. “By focusing on the three essential skills that build confidence, we’re showing boys and girls that it’s fun for everyone to learn, to discover and to celebrate success.”
Spreading the word about the event has become a major initiative of its own. Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson has appeared on television—The Tonight Show, CBS This Morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter and Golf Channel—and even at the New York Stock Exchange to promote the virtues of the Drive, Chip and Putt. “I can’t think of a better way for a youngster to learn and get better at the game of golf and do it while having fun and building relationships,” Watson has said. “That’s what golf is ultimately all about for me.”
Watson explained his involvement as an opportunity to “share his passion for this program with as many parents and kids around the country as possible.”
“I can’t think of a better way for a youngster to learn and get better at the game of golf and do it while having fun and building relationships." - Bubba Watson
For Payne, it was at the gathering Saturday night during last year’s Drive, Chip and Putt that he introduced the competitors and parents to the organizers from the Masters, the USGA and the PGA of America that the enormity of what was happening made its greatest impact on him.
“I knew that there was something very special in these kids and their families, and the excitement and anticipation which they had for competing here the next day,” Payne said. “They responded so wonderfully. It was one of the most powerful days of my life.”
In its third edition for 2016, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship will open qualifying locations throughout all 50 states during the months of May, June, July and August. Top performers at the local level will advance through sub-regional and regional qualifiers in July, August and September. The top 80 performers will earn invitations to the national finals at Augusta National on Sunday, April 3, the eve of Masters week.
For more information about the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, including the official rules, a full listing of qualifying sites and registration information, visit www.DriveChipandPutt.com.