Once, 15-year-old Ben Nganga was choosing between golf and basketball. His father, Reuben Nganga, who came to the United States from Kenya 12 years ago and took up golf after buying a set of clubs at a yard sale, recalls that this was no mere clash.
“It was a big war between basketball and golf,” Reuben said.
Today, Ben Nganga is on the White Station High School golf team in Memphis. But during his formative golf years he competed in Drive, Chip and Putt, a free, nationwide youth golf development program that includes more than 290 free local qualifiers in all 50 states this summer.
On Saturday in Memphis, Tenn., Ben was a spectator watching his younger siblings – 7-year-old twins Brittney (pictured above) and Bryant Karunda – in the local qualifier at TCP Southwind. Brittney did well enough that she will advance to the July 26 subregional at The Grove golf course near Nashville in the larger quest to reach the National Finals on April 7, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club.
And no doubt what Drive, Chip and Putt did for Ben – “it gave me the fire to practice more” – it will do for some of the more than 160 boys and girls ages 7-15 that competed Saturday at the site of next weekend’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.
As for why golf won the war, Ben said: “It’s individualized. How good you are isn’t based on other players. It’s based on yourself.”
The goal of Drive, Chip and Putt, however, is not to push every young golfer toward playing in high school, or to pursue a college golf scholarship, or to chase the dream of being a pro.
Some will, of course, but the vision is so much larger.
“It’s for every skill level,” said Paul Stanek, Tennessee Section PGA operations manager. “It’s a great program to continue to grow the fundamentals of the game – from getting your grip right to hit the drive, to getting in front of the ball to make that little putt, to getting in front of the ball to make that short little chip.
“But you don’t have to do it all on the golf course. It’s way easier for them to do it in this setting where they hit three drives, hit three chips, hit three putts. They can hone those skills.”
While the top three players in every division advanced to the subregional, ribbons were also given for placing in the top three in each of the skill categories. Players earned points for driving distance, but also had to keep the tee shots within a 40-foot wide fairway. Points for chips and putts were based on proximity to the hole.
Carson Daniel of Bolivar, Tenn., who already had earned a place in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship 2018 at Pinehurst, finished second in the Boys 10-11 division and rolled in a putt from 15 feet. He was even more impressive from the tee box hitting 200-yard center-cut bombs.
“He’s handy to have in a scramble,” said his father, Kevin Daniel.
Carson’s 7-year-old brother, Connor Daniel, also advanced to the subregional, and there was evidence all-around that golf is truly a family affair.
Maier Jernigan, from Oxford, Miss., competed in the Girls 10-11 division. Her presence here could largely be attributed to her grandparents, who live in a golf community in Savannah, Ga., and had her on the course “as soon as she could walk,” said her mother, Krisden Jernigan.
Like Ben Nganga used to be, Maier is torn between sports and also involved in basketball, tennis and softball. But she will allow there is nothing quite like stepping to the tee box and looking down that fairway “when you hit it very far,” she said, channeling John Daly, or maybe Carson Daniel.
Just how far these youth players go with golf is a plot in progress. But it never hurts when the past, present and future all intersect.
Daylon Dockery, who competed in the Boys 10-11 division, once made a 125-foot putt. Granted, it was when he was playing as golf legend Bobby Jones in the video game Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14. But the video game has taught him the game’s history. He knows who Arnold Palmer is. And even Walter Hagen.
Young Daylon counts Tiger as his favorite player, but says, “He’s getting ready to retire from the PGA soon.”
He might be rushing Tiger a bit but, as his father Darrlyon Dockery noted on Saturday, the story keeps going.
“He’s gonna play golf forever,” Darrlyon said of Tiger. “Just like us.”