PINEHURST, N.C. – Pinehurst has been the venue for three U.S. Opens, one U.S. Women’s Open, one Ryder Cup, one PGA Championship and two U.S. Amateurs. But Sunday’s parade of nearly 100 youngsters had the hair standing on Ben Bridgers’ arms.
“This is as much fun as any of them,” the resort’s director of golf said as the first Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier of the year unfolded Sunday morning under clear, blue skies. “This is what we get in the business for. I love it. It gives me chills—seeing all these kids come to Pinehurst on a beautiful day. It’s awesome.”
Nearby was Donna Andrews Tepatti, who won the Women’s North and South Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2 in 1988 and for a period in the 1990s wore the resort’s “Putter Boy” logo on her shirt as she traveled the nation with the LPGA. Today she teaches golf at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club four miles away in Southern Pines, and her 7-year-old daughter Sarah Tepatti is learning the game under Donna’s tutelage. Sarah qualified for the Pinehurst regional from the Greensboro subregional.
“My kids hang out when I teach lessons in the summer,” Donna said of Sarah and son Connor. “They both enjoy it. Sarah seems to have a real knack for it. The Drive, Chip and Putt has been great. I found out about it from a girl I was teaching two years ago. It’s free—why not? I mention to all the kids I know.”
The Pinehurst field included 96 youngsters, 12 in each of four age categories for boys and girls, with the winners getting berths in the National Finals at Augusta National on April 1, 2018, the Sunday before the Masters Tournament. The proceedings commenced just before 8:30 a.m., with bagpiper Pete McArthur leading the first group to compete, the Girls 7-9 age division, from the practice tee to the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 1, where the driving competition was held.
The skirls of Scotland the Great floating through the morning air lent a special touch as the young golfers and their families came to the regional from as far New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the north and nearby South Carolina to the south.
“It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Carolinas PGA Section Executive Director Jeff Abbott said of having administered the competition for four years. “Seeing these kids get a golf club in their hands at an early age, having fun and coming back is very gratifying.”
One golfer will make a return trip to Augusta. Katherine Schuster of Kill Devils Hills, N.C., qualified in 2015 for the Girls 12-13 division and placed third. She won the Girls 14-15 Sunday by dominating the drive and putt competitions and notching 151 points, 14 ahead of second-place Emma Schimpf from Daniel Island, S.C.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I wanted so badly to win and go back to Augusta,” Schuster said. “I was so excited. I’ll know what to expect this time. I know I have to work on my putting and chipping. Those greens will be a lot of fun. Chipping really hurt me last time, I’ll have to work hard on that.
The putting competition was held on Pinehurst’s Thistle Dhu putting course, which opened in 2013 with a variety of rolls, mounds and hollows. The third putt each competitor faced was the longest at some 30 feet and the most difficult—a double-breaker that had to traverse a hump on the right and then a canting slope nearer the cup.
Jack Farkas of Ardmore, Pa., won the Boys 14-15 division by draining that treacherous putt on his last stroke of the competition.
“In to win,” his dad Bob said with a smile.
“I saw a bunch of putts before mine,” Jack said. “I had a good idea of what it was going to do.”
Holland Giles had the advantage in the Boys 12-13 group since he lives in Pinehurst and has putted on Thistle Dhu before. He dominated his group with 146 points, ahead of Rohan Singh’s 125. Giles, whose father Ron is a teaching pro at nearby Pinewild Country Club, won both the chipping and putting categories.
“And usually those are my two weakest part of my game,” he said.
Giles has been to Augusta National before but this will be different.
“I’ll probably shank a couple to start with,” he said with a smile.
Two of the younger competitors are looking forward to Augusta but have bigger things in mind.
Eight-year-old Luke Parsons of Salley, S.C. – about an hour east of Augusta – won the 2015 U.S. Kids World Championship for boys 6-and-under and just this summer added the IMG World Championship in San Diego. Parsons won the Boys 7-9 division just minutes after his friend, Ella June Hannant of Pikeville, N.C., collected the Girls 7-9 title. The win made Hannant’s special day even more so as she turned age 8 on Sunday.
“Luke says that he and Ella June have decided to get married—when they turn 10,” said his father, Tim Parsons, a “semi-retired” ophthalmologist.
He glanced toward the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2.
“They’re going to play No. 2 and then have the ceremony on the 18th green. How fun is that?”
Quite a lot, given the passion everyone at the Pinehurst Drive, Chip and Putt regional has for the game of golf.