Family Affair at Riviera

By Brian Robin

This keeping it in the family routine isn’t supposed to happen in golf, where greatness often gets lost or transformed into mere goodness in the generational DNA and a family affair simply entails spending time with your siblings and parents at the neighborhood golf course.

That memo never made it to the storied Riviera Country Club, the Pacific Palisades, Calif., course that played host to the Drive, Chip and Putt Western Regional on Saturday. On a sunny, Southern California fall afternoon less than two miles from the Pacific Ocean, winning your age group seemed to be in the genes. While special things tend to happen at Riviera, the place Ben Hogan made his Alley and where the likes of Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Tom Watson and Fred Couples made repeated trips to the winner’s ceremony at the annual L.A. Open, what happened at Saturday’s Western Regional was truly one for the family album.

Literally.

Three of the eight age-group divisions were captured by siblings of past Finals competitors. Two of those: Girls 7-9 division winner Kristina Xu of Claremont, Calif., and Girls 12-13 division winner Nalani Sam of Anaheim Hills, Calif., are the younger sisters of previous Finals winners, Kelly Xu, the 2014 7-9 division winner, and last year’s Girls 12-13 winner Kayla Sam.

To put this into perspective, consider how rare it is to get one offspring to the finals. They have to navigate a minefield of local, sub-regional and regional qualifying against golf prodigies equally as driven, equally as talented. They have nine shots, nine – three in each discipline – where one bad shot anywhere along the way could end the journey.

When Kelly Xu won two years ago, she opened a door that not only got her to New York for media appearances with 2014 Masters Tournament winner Bubba Watson, but a door that got her a round of golf with Augusta National member and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Stanford Golf Club. That opportunity came courtesy of Rice learning about a comment Xu made about wanting to play with her.

That door hasn’t opened yet for Kristina, who didn’t get to accompany her sister to Augusta National because, as her mother Tong Zhao put it, “She had to earn her way there.”

Which Kristina did, by winning all three disciplines and besting her closest competitor by 47 points.

“She’s going to have a lot of fun,” Kelly said about her younger sister. “We compete against each other a lot. We have putting contests and she’s always trying to prove herself against me. My face is hurting from smiling so much. I’m very proud of her.”

When Kayla Sam won the Western Regional in 2015, she didn’t win any one discipline. So already, Nalani has her sister 1-down on that front. Nalani captured both the driving and chipping disciplines en route to 143 points.

Kayla has her sister all square in the celebrity sighting department, getting a meet-and-greet with surprise guest Justin Timberlake. “He was very nice. We took pictures and we did putting and got autographs,” Kayla said of one of her enduring memories during her Finals trip last year.

The other?

“It looked like the Masters course, they cut it one-by-one with scissors. I kind of wanted to sleep on the grass,” she said.

Then, there was Evan Chien of Irvine, Calif., who won the Boys 12-13 division. Last year, his sister, Leigh, qualified in the age 7-9 division, while Evan didn’t get out of local qualifying. This year, the two traded places, with Leigh in the role of unwilling, but supportive spectator.

“When I went with her, it’s a really great experience. I’d like to come back,” Evan said. “When I made it here, I realized most of it is luck. Everyone has their good and bad days and it’s only nine shots. If you’re on the golf course, you have 72 shots. Here, you only have nine shots and if you hit one bad and it’s like permanent.”

Wayne Chien, Evan and Leigh’s father, said the only thing permanent was his sense of wonder and surprise at having two kids qualify for the Finals. He said while Leigh’s trip in 2015 was “really kind of unbelievable” because she was going up against Kelly Xu, having his son qualify this year “was a little bit surprising.”

Joining Xu, Sam and Chien at Augusta National next April are fellow age-group winners Carter Gaede (Boys 7-9) of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who posted a winning score of 112; Liam Hartling of Redlands, Calif. (Boys 10-11/117); Mason Quagliata of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Boys 14-15/143); Girls 10-11 winner Lucy Yuan of San Diego (109) and Girls 14-15 champion Megan Ahmadi of Westlake Village, Calif., who racked up the top score in the region with 161 points.

All of the Western Regionals winners are first-time finalists; none of them had seen the grounds of Augusta National outside of the two who joined their siblings there.

To a person, most of them said it hadn’t sunk in yet, but besides Nalani Sam’s desire to use Augusta National’s lush fairways as an impromptu mattress, there’s another endorsement.

“I heard my sister tell me they have good food there,” Kristina Xu said.