PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As young contestants arrived for the Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on October 14, the tone was set early as the iconic clubhouse cast a long shadow across the practice green.
Boys and girls dressed in brightly colored golf clothing bearing the brand logos of their favorite professionals ambled through the morning shadow into a day full of hope to reach the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club next spring.
By early afternoon, four girls and four boys were Augusta-bound. Even a postponement following Hurricane Irma in early October and a brief rain shower during Saturday’s competition could not dampen the enthusiasm. There were high fives, kids hugging kids, parents hugging kids and a happy clank of medals worn by proud winners who smiled for photos. These players were the final eight to qualify for a trip to Augusta next spring.
“The last time I tried to qualify, I was too excited and I wasn’t even thinking, but this time, I was more focused on my shots,” said Dazhou “David” Wu, 13, who moved to the Orlando, Fla., area a year ago from his homeland in Beijing, China, and won the Boys 12-13 age division to advance.
“I’m so happy and so proud of this for my family,” added Wu, reaching the regional event for the first time and winning the driving skills challenge in his age division.
Georgia native Loralie Cowart capitalized on her first year in the Drive, Chip and Putt competition by winning the Girls 14-15 age division.
“All I was thinking was I had to chip and putt good and hit all three drives in the fairway,” said Cowart, who finished third in chipping and second in putting in her age division and will make the four-hour drive with her family to Augusta from her home in Winston, Ga.
Sahish Reddy was another first-time player who moved into the national event by winning his age group in the regional competition. Reddy won the driving and chipping skills to capture the title for Boys 10-11.
“I was kind of surprised to win two events,” said Reddy, 10, of Duluth, Ga., who has been playing golf for four years. Reddy was motivated to try the competition when a friend of his older brother was an age division winner in a previous national championship.
“I know the greens will be even faster at Augusta National,” Reddy said.
The young competitors at TPC Sawgrass used the 18th tee on the Stadium Course for the driving skills challenge in their event. The youngsters were also given a tour of the famed 17th island-green hole.
“It’s awe-inspiring for these kids to play where the pros play, and it adds to the whole experience for them to be able to use the 18th hole for the driving event,” said Bob Baldassari, director of youth golf development for the PGA of America.
“Drive, Chip and Putt is for every kid from everywhere and at every level. It’s really a joyful day for the kids and their parents to have a family golf experience together.”
It was a true family affair for Gloria Nip of Port St. Lucie, Fla., who had to compete against her younger sister, Angela, in the Girls 10-11 age group. The older sister won and will return to Augusta National after qualifying two years ago.
“I played much better this year because I got a new coach and my family and little sister helped me so much,” said Nip, 11, who won the chipping and putting skills in her age group.
Brendan Valdes of Orlando, Fla., won the driving and chipping events and finished second in putting to advance as the regional Boys 14-15 winner.
It was the fourth Drive, Chip and Putt competition for Valdes, 14, who has twice advanced to the regional stage.
“I felt like I had my best chance this time because I hit it longer now and I’ve gotten a lot better,” said Valdes, 14. “I was hoping to do it, and now I get to go to Augusta National.”
This year’s competition was bittersweet for Dawson Garrett of Fort Payne, Ala., competing in the Boys 14-15 competition for the last time.
Two days ago during high school basketball practice, Garrett rolled his right ankle while rebounding and arrived at the regional qualifier in a knee-high orthopedic boot, which he removed during his three skills competitions.
“I thought I still had a chance, but it hurt a little bit,” said Garrett, 15, who finished second in driving and third in chipping. “This is a really fun event, and I’m glad I tried.”
Other age group winners in the regional competition included Girls 7-9 – Jensi Krampel of Naples, Fla.; Boys 7-9 – Miles Russell of Jacksonsville Beach, Fla.; and Girls 12-13 – Alexandra Gazzoli of Palm Coast, Fla.