By Bill Fields
On a windy late Saturday afternoon by the Savannah River, the 80 boys and girls posed for a group picture, the smaller kids on risers, everyone with a smile. Inside a hotel, they had gotten briefed by Drive, Chip and Putt officials on the rules of the competition they had eagerly awaited for months. They signed the players’ scroll, most in cursive, a couple in block letters.
This was a big deal.
There were hamburgers, mac and cheese and ice cream cones and a couple of speeches, but more than anything, there was a big banquet room full of a lot of anticipation about what was going to happen at Augusta National Golf Club Sunday morning.
“Fifty years from now, you will be telling your grandchildren about your experiences tomorrow,” Augusta National and Masters chairman Billy Payne told the participants at the welcome reception dinner. “Legends will grow around ‘the day that I played golf at Augusta National Golf Club.’ Photos of standing on Magnolia Lane or on our 18th green will occupy a prominent place on the wall of every house you will ever live in for the rest of your life.”
It had been a day when the skies cleared and the grass started to dry from torrential rains the previous day. Participants checked out their swings and tried to keep their butterflies in check. Or, as three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret liked to advise, at least keep them flying in formation.
Hours before the festivities, 13-year-old Jay Nimmo practiced at the range of The River Golf Club in North Augusta, South Carolina, preparing for something he had mapped out a year ago.
Two golfers that Nimmo knows from junior golf competitions – Jake Peacock and Toby Wilson – won their divisions during last year’s Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club.
“I watched it on television and told myself that I would make it to Augusta National next year,” said Nimmo, a seventh-grader from Benton, Kentucky. “I worked to get here, and now I’m really looking forward to competing Sunday.”
For Nimmo and his fellow finalists, it had seemed like a long time since they earned this invitation at regionals that took place last fall.
“I know he wondered if this weekend would ever get here,” Robert Light said of his son, Ryan, after they had traveled over from their home in Loganville, Georgia, for Ryan to compete in the Boys 7-9 division.
“I’ll be a little nervous,” Ryan said, “but it’s going to be exciting. I’ve been working on my game about four days a week to get ready."
“Fifty years from now, you will be telling your grandchildren about your experiences tomorrow.” - Billy Payne
Despite the soggy turf, 13-year-old Elaine Giantsopoulos of Richmond Hill, Ontario, found The River Golf Club practice range a nice change compared to the basement of the Giantsopoulos family home, where an artificial-turf putting green and a hitting net give Elaine and her older brother, Angelo, a place to stay in golf shape during the Canadian winter.
“We’re down there a lot,” said Elaine, “but it’s so cool to make it to Augusta.”
Ethan Borovilos won’t be competing in the National Finals – but give the 7-year-old time. As his sister, Vanessa, 9, practiced for her second appearance at Augusta National, Ethan was spending some time on the putting green as well. Just like Nimmo, he was inspired by what he saw last spring.
“Ethan got the golf bug last year watching Vanessa,” their mother, Tracey said. “He’s been practicing really hard.”
To improve his short game, Ethan could have done worse than to watch Miguel Flores-Acton, an 11-year-old left-hander from San Angelo, Texas, who was wearing his lucky pastel-plaid Hogan cap. Flores-Acton chipped in two of his three attempts in a Houston regional and nestled the third shot within inches.
At The River Golf Club, Flores-Acton began chipping at the practice green and promptly holed his first two shots, a downhill 30-footer with a couple of feet of left-to-right break. If he makes it look that easy Sunday morning, it could be a very special day.
"I’ve been working on my game about four days a week to get ready." - Ryan Light
Flores-Acton posed for a picture with former PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen at the reception. So did Jack St. Ledger of Little Falls, New Jersey, who is competing in the Boys 7-9 division. It did not look like a moment that would happen for St. Ledger, who was last after the Drive portion of his regional before staging a huge comeback in the short-game skills to advance to the National Finals.
“Pretend you’re just out playing with your dad,” Jacobsen told St. Ledger. “It only takes a minute to hit a golf shot. Just focus on hitting it.”
The kids were going to have an early wake-up for a day they have been looking forward to for months.
“Compete like crazy,” said Derek Sprague, president of the PGA of America, “but laugh, smile and enjoy the moment.”