MAMARONECK, N.Y. – The first day of fall turned up overcast and a bit chilly at Winged Foot Golf Club. As on any other Sunday morning, the members were limbering up their swings on the range.
Only this time, those swings looked a little creakier compared to the other players out there.
The esteemed club was hosting a Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier and, just like the greats who have won at Winged Foot in the past – champions like Bobby Jones, Betsy Rawls, Billy Casper and Davis Love III – the eight youngsters earned their way to the 2019 National Finals at the Augusta National Golf Club on the Sunday before the 2019 Masters Tournament by displaying plenty of game.
“I heard that going to the Masters is a religious experience and this is pretty close,” said Darsey Lavigne, whose son Carter, from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, advanced by winning the Boys 7-9 age group.
“When I got here, I saw people walking down the fairway,” said Sophia Li, the Girls 10-11 regional champion from Fresh Meadows, N.Y. “And I said, ‘Wait, are they walking on a green?’”
For the 96 talented youngsters who made it this far, Winged Foot was a reward in itself. But Jeff Voorhies of the PGA of America’s Metropolitan Section noted that the real value of the program is how many kids it exposes to the game as “an easy ice breaker on the road map throughout the junior golf process.”
The competition featured a little bit of everything. Four division winners (Owen Walsh, James Bradley, Li and Alexandra Phung) are from the New York area. The other four (Nicole Gal, Vanessa Borovilos, Andy Mac and Lavigne) hail from Canada.
Borovilos made it through to the National Finals for a record-tying fourth time, joining Treed Huang and Megha Ganne, who qualified earlier. Borovilos, from Toronto, won the Girls 12-13 qualifier a year after winning the Girls 10-11 national title at Augusta National.
“Brooke Henderson and Tiger Woods are her idols and she wants to follow in their footsteps,” said her dad, Dino, noting that Vanessa is also a two-time winner of the U.S. Kids World Championship.
On the other hand, Mac, the Boys 10-11 winner, was competing in Drive, Chip and Putt for the first time. His father, Hai, saw an ad on TV and registered his son from their home in Candiac, Quebec, Canada, a suburb of Montreal.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I knew I had a chance to go to Augusta National,” said Andy, who swept all three skills en route to 141 points and a 31-point victory.
Two finalists received valuable advice from siblings.
Walsh, the Boys 14-15 winner, watched his brother, Chris, compete in this event a year ago.
“Definitely watching my brother gave me a lot of experience,” said Owen, from Katonah, N.Y., about 30 minutes north of Winged Foot. “He gave me great advice. Just take it one step at a time and don’t worry about your other opponents and you’ll do fine.”
Owen hardly missed a shot in accumulating 147 points, the best in any division.
Phung, the Girls 7-9 champ and a Forest Hills, N.Y., resident, was advised to “slow down and have patience” by her sister Amelie, who competed in the Girls 10-11 division. That’s why she started playing golf in the first place – “to have fun with my sister.”
There was Gal, the Girls 14-15 winner, whose 146 points would have placed her just one point behind Walsh in the boys’ division.
“It hasn’t even hit me yet. It’s crazy. I’m so excited. I still can’t believe I did it,” said Gal, from Oakville, Ontario, Canada, as she looked at the scoreboard. “I’m so looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to go to the Masters just to watch but now I can go and play.”
Some surprised themselves.
“I was really nervous for all the shots but I just took a deep breath, closed my eyes and imagined hitting the ball wherever it needed to go,” said Bradley, the Boys 12-13 winner from East Hampton, N.Y.
Meanwhile, Li dominated the Girls 10-11 division even though it was her first trip to the regionals in three attempts.
“Since I’ve never made it this far, I came here thinking, ‘Don’t think about Augusta.’ Now that it’s over I can think of it all I want,” she said.
Lavigne, meanwhile, is used to winning. He started beating his dad when he was just age 6.
“Now they don’t even ask anymore,” he said.
It was quite a day at quite a golf course.
“I was here in 2006 at the U.S. Open when Geoff Ogilvy won,” said Brian Sutherland, Nicole Gal’s grandfather. “But this for sure is absolutely a bigger thrill.”