By Lisa D. Mickey
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On a late-summer morning in North Florida with cloudy skies and occasional rain, anxious junior golfers in tiny plaid shorts filed into the Tour players’ practice area at TPC Sawgrass to compete in the Florida Drive, Chip & Putt Regionals.
Kids with hiccups and young golfers with too-large visors sliding down past their ears stopped by a table to eye the medals. Sisters in matching pink outfits also took a look. They knew that the players who won the three individual skills challenges, as well as overall age-group winners, would be taking home the hardware.
One young boy whispered to his dad, “Can you believe this?”
At the end of the day, four girls and four boys between the ages of 7 and 15 believed in themselves enough to win, earning their way into the 2016 Drive, Chip & Putt Championship next spring at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
Skylar Thompson, 15, of Buford, Ga., was one of those winners. Playing in her third regional qualifying event in the last year she is eligible, Thompson finally earned her pass to Augusta by winning the Girls 14-15 division.
“The first year I didn’t make it, I wasn’t too disappointed, but last year, I had practiced really hard and when I didn’t make it, I took it pretty hard,” said Thompson, a high school sophomore. “I told myself this was a new chance and a new opportunity to play better.”
Thompson attended last year’s Drive, Chip & Putt Championship with her parents even though she had not earned a spot to compete. Watching her peers at the event made her want to try one more time.
“I almost started crying last year, but watching it made me even more determined,” said the 5-foot-11 Thompson, who also qualified for her first U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship earlier this summer.
Kids of all ages were reaching a little deeper for that carrot called Augusta National. And they were also pinching themselves to think they were competing on the same turf where their PGA Tour heroes play.
“Do you know where the bathroom is?” asked one boy. “That one says ‘Tour Players Only.’”
In today’s regional, the youngsters were the VIPs and had full access to TPC Sawgrass.
Thirteen-year-old Johnny Wright of Orlando, Fla., moved up an age group and beat older boys to win the Boys 14-15 division in his first Drive, Chip & Putt appearance.
“It feels amazing because I practice a lot and it paid off,” said Wright, an eighth grader, who finished second in putting.
Alexa Pano, 11, of Lake Worth, Fla., earned a return visit to the national championship. She competed in Augusta last year and hopes for another shot at winning the Girls 10-11 division.
“What I learned last year is if you don’t get nervous and just ... relax a little, it’s a lot easier to have fun while competing,” said Pano, who also collected medals for driving and putting.
By day’s end, there were tears and hanging heads, as well as high fives and smiles. Serious-faced little girls with folded arms stared at the leader board, watching the numbers get posted. Teenage boys tried not to show their disappointment.
But Ryan Light of Loganville, Ga., who came up short last year in qualifying, wore a big smile after he rebounded with a win in the Boys 7-9 division.
“You’ve got to beat the best to be the best,” said Light, 9, a fourth grader. “I wanted to get better and I did.”