PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The scene at TPC Sawgrass is markedly more youthful whenever the Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier comes to the home course of the PGA Tour and The Players.
And while each of the 96 golfers competing in eight age divisions arrived Saturday focused on reaching the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National next spring, kids are mostly just kids when they’re not thinking about their next shot.
That was apparent before competition began when tiny girls in colorful golf skorts turned cartwheels down the slope adjacent to the sprawling TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Kids sported colorful junior golf attire in the practice areas, followed by parents who sprayed them with sunscreen and photographed them in front of a Drive, Chip and Putt banner.
Many of the juniors and their parents stopped to take a peek at the medals table filled with the prizes to be awarded for skills competition, most notably the four overall boys and girls awards for those earning their way to Augusta National on the Sunday before the 2019 Masters Tournament.
One youngster, Ryan Nana Tanke of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., gave his Saturday Ryder Cup ticket to his brother when he learned he had qualified for today’s regional Drive, Chip and Putt qualifier in Florida. That gesture paid off, with Nana Tanke earning his spot in the National Finals with a win in the Boys 7-9 age division.
“I am happy because it’s my first time to go to the Masters and Augusta National,” said Nana Tanke, who lives mostly in Paris, but spends two months annually in Florida, where he is coached by PGA Master Professional Warren Bottke, who first taught the game to thee-time major champion and Ryder Cup participant Brooks Koepka.
And while Koepka was struggling in France competing in the 2018 Ryder Cup, the young Frenchman was in Koepka’s home state winning his age division’s skills challenges in driving and putting.
“I had to work for it,” said Nana Tanke, 8½ years old, who has been playing golf for five years. “I’m surprised I won.”
Two contestants in Saturday’s field had short drives to TPC Sawgrass and credited home-turf familiarity for giving them an edge in regional competition.
Bryson Hughes of St. Johns, Fla., had a 20-minute drive to compete and took home honors in the Boys 10-11 age group in his first regional Drive, Chip and Putt event in four tries.
Hughes, 11, finished third in driving, won the chipping event and tied for second in putting for a total score of 160 – the best total score of all the age group winners on a hot day.
“Most of my score today was because of my chipping, which is where I’ve had most of my problems,” said Hughes, who has been playing for six years. “I worked on it really, really hard. I put my chips all close to the hole, so I got 55 points for chipping today.”
Andrew Mclauchlan of Neptune Beach, Fla., also brought some local knowledge into the event. He is a freshman at The Bolles School, located around the corner from TPC Sawgrass.
“I was a little nervous coming here this morning, but I was also familiar with TPC Sawgrass, so it helped to have that familiarity when I walked in here,” said Mclauchlan, 14, who takes golf lessons at TPC Sawgrass.
Mclauchlan made good on a promise to himself after he failed to advance from local qualifying at his first attempt last year. This year would be different, he said.
“I worked really hard with my coach and practiced a lot,” said Mclauchlan, who finished second in chipping in the Boys 14-15 group. “Normally, the strength of my game is driving, but today, chipping got it done. I’m so glad it paid off.”
Kate Barber had a longer drive from Savannah, Ga., to win the Girls 12-13 age division. She finished second in driving and third in chipping in her skills challenges.
“I wanted to make it here to the regionals last year, but I didn’t, so I knew I was going to try harder to get here this year,” said Barber, 11, playing in her fourth Drive, Chip and Putt. “My driving was great today, which helped.”
Barber attended the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals last year at Augusta National as a patron. Next spring, she will be one of the players with clubs in her hands.
And when asked what the first thing she plans to do at Augusta National will be, Barber didn’t hesitate.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I get there is eat an egg salad sandwich,” she said.
Drive, Chip and Putt contestants visited TPC Sawgrass in May when the facility hosted the first local qualifier on the Saturday before The Players. Matt Borocz, assistant general manager and director of golf at TPC Sawgrass, was excited to welcome back some of the junior golfers for the final step to Augusta.
“Drive, Chip and Putt is an excellent opportunity to help kids who may not know about golf learn about it,” Borocz said. “It’s a really simple concept that gets kids out to experience golf and it might even give them the golf bug to want to learn more about the game.”
And for those juniors who have qualified to travel five hours north to Augusta next spring, autographs by the pros, time to shine on national TV and egg salad sandwiches are just a few benefits to their long days of practice.
Other age group winners in the regional competition included: Girls 7-9 – Briel Royce of Lake Nona, Fla.; Girls 10-11 – Ariana Silva of Sunrise, Fla.; Boys 12-13 – Garret Ebbert of Longwood, Fla.; and Girls 14-15 – Talia Rodino of Fort Myers, Fla.