ST. LOUIS - Certainly, the setting was different. Temperatures were in the 90s and crowds were massive on Aug. 12 when Brooks Koepka won the 100th playing of the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Cub.
Six weeks later, on Saturday at the same Bellerive, temperatures were in the 60s and galleries were made up mostly of family and friends. But as 96 juniors competed in the regional qualifier of 2019 Drive, Chip and Putt, some things were virtually identical – anxiety, drama and thrills.
The prevailing eight juniors secured berths in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals set for April 7, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.,the Sunday before the 2019 Masters Tournament.
Perhaps it’s not the same as winning a major championship. But for the young competitors and their families, it’s darn close. Especially since the Bellerive qualifier was the last of 10 iconic sites around the country to offer a path to Augusta National.
“I’m all excited to go to Augusta, it’s unbelievable,” said Taya Bellloma, 9, who was first in Girls 7-9 on the strength of her performance in the drive competition. Belloma, third in both chipping and putting, put a 138-yard drive down the middle of Bellerive’s 10th fairway to top the overall competition.
Belloma didn’t remember watching the recent PGA Championship at Bellerive, but her father, Alex Belloma, knows she’ll have no problem remembering next year’s Masters. “She’s really excited; I figure this is the only way we would ever get to Augusta National,” said Belloma, who made the four-hour drive from Centerville, Iowa, to provide his daughter the chance.
Back in mid-August, Koepka needed only a tap-in putt to set a PGA Championship scoring record and win his second major of the season. Isaac Rumler, from Silvis, Ill., needed a 30-foot putt with his last shot of the day to get to Augusta. He drained it, winning the Boys 10-11 by two points.
“I can’t believe it,” said proud poppa Matt Rumler. “I mean, I’m so excited I can hardly think.” Seemingly oblivious to pressure, Isaac took it all in stride, but acknowledged, “It’s exciting, yeah. I can’t want to go to the Masters. I hope I get to meet some players.”
Likewise, Grady Ortiz, rode a hot putter to become a 2019 National Finalist. The 8-year old from Colorado Springs, Colo., dropped a six-footer and 15-footer to dominate the putting phase of the Boys 7-9 competition and finish first overall. “I feel a lot like Brooks Koepka to be the champion here,” Ortiz said, handling his first media interview with aplomb. “I can’t wait to go to Augusta National. I’ve watched the Masters on TV; it’s great to think I’ll be there.”
Ortiz was one of three qualifiers at Bellerive from Colorado, joined by Caitlyn Chin in Girls 10-11 from Greenwood Village and Chunya Boonta in Girls 12-13 from Centennial.
One player who can talk about the Augusta National experience is Julia Misemer, the Girls 14-15 winner. The Overland Park, Kansas, resident previously qualified for the National Finals in 2015 in the Girls 10-11 division.
Along with cooler weather, the Bellerive environment could not have been more inviting. While a club championship was taking place among members, and a wedding was underway in the clubhouse, the club gave the Drive, Chip and Putt proceedings the major championship treatment.
“I have to give a lot of props to Bellerive for letting us come out here; it’s such a quick turnaround,” said Gavin Hagar, director of youth development for the Gateway PGA Section. “They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. It shows what they’re about.”
Bellerive head pro Brandon Veld made it clear the club was all in from the start, the short turnaround challenges notwithstanding. “The members welcomed this – it’s something they feel very honored and privileged to be hosting,” Veld said. “We’re very excited to watch these juniors and see what they can do.”
For St. Louis-product John Guerra, who captured the Boys 12-13 competition, the only way to top winning a trip to the Masters would be to do so in his hometown. He doubled his pleasure, edging Byron, Ill.-product Maison Brandt by one point, 132-131. “It makes it pretty special, to do it here,” said Guerra, who won the chipping category of the division with two chips inside two feet.
The week of the PGA Championship, Guerra’s parents left their son at the front gates of Bellerive every morning. “We dropped him off at 7:30 in the morning and he would be here all day long,” said Omar Guerra, John’s father. “We were in the stands on the 18th green to watch Tiger (Woods) make his birdie putt, and we watched Brooks Koepka make his finial putt to win. So this is really exciting for him, to be back here and compete, and have things go his way today and win.”
For some families, the coin flipped both ways. Jake Cesare finished seventh in the Boys 12-13 division, but his brother, Alec Cesare, captured the Boys 14-15 invite, finishing with 168 points overall. To advance, Alec had to overcome the driving performance of Matthew Wilkinson, who had one blast register 305 yards and finished with 70 of 75 possible points in the category.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” said his father, Jeff Cesare, whose family made the trip from Westfield, Ind. “He’s been playing golf since he was 3. I’m telling you, there’s no kid that works harder at this game than he does. He’s a grinder, he put the work in.”
With the Bellerive qualifier complete, the final field for the 2019 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals includes players from 27 states and Canada. California and Florida have the most representatives with seven from each state and there are five Canadians.