LA JOLLA, Calif. – In Milan Norton’s case, it was the socks and the foreshadowing, comforting, motivating message. For Benny Nelson, it was the words from his father that, yeah, if you win, we’ll go to Augusta National and you can put all that television watching of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals to good use.
Jay Leng Jr. had inside knowledge on what it takes to get there, combined with a hot putter and a cool demeanor – and in Leng’s case, we’re not just talking about his iceman persona standing over a must-make, 30-foot putt. Ryder Rasmussen had the memory of his second-place finish at this very same setting last year.
And in Mia Cepeda’s case, it was seeing what a fellow Hawaiian did last year, seeing what her younger sister did this year in their games at home, and seeing that if she dialed the temper back, she too, could make it to Augusta.
Yes, every one of the 80 players who survived local and subregional qualifying over the summer months to make it to iconic Torrey Pines for Saturday’s Drive, Chip and Putt regional has game. Every one of them talked about endless hours of practice honing and refining that game. Every one of them has stories about near-misses, chunked chips and sprayed drives that cost them their chance at the golden ticket that is a trip to Augusta National Golf Club on the Sunday before the 2019 Masters Tournament begins.
So like many things in life, it comes down to the little things.
Little things like the knee-high “Best Day Ever” socks 9-year-old Norton wore. The Las Vegas resident embodied those very sentiments when she won the Girls 7-9 division. Norton won the chipping discipline en route to victory.
“I knew it was going to be the best day ever when I put them on,” she said.
In the outgoing Nelson’s case, his best day ever began earlier this year, when the 8-year-old from the west side of Los Angeles had an eye-opening chat with his father, Matt. Two years ago, Nelson competed and, in his own words, “The first time I did this, I had no idea what it was and I got like 50th place.” So he took last year off not because he was upset at his poor performance, but for a reason that defies logic to anyone but an 8-year-old.
“He didn’t want to do it and in fact, he didn’t want to do it this year and I asked him, ‘Benny, why don’t you want to do it?’ He goes, ‘Even if I win, you’re not going to let me go to Augusta.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? Of course we’re going to Augusta if you win,’ ” Matt Nelson said. “So he said, ‘OK, in that case, I’ll do it.’ I think for two years, he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t think we’d let him go if he won.”
Benny Nelson will be going to Augusta, after he put on a commanding performance with wins in driving and chipping to capture the Boys 7-9 division. He said TV watching may help him prepare.
“Usually they do the same putts, chips and drives every year. So I take that information and I’m going to be able to use that information to be able to do well,” he said. “When I first came here, it went seven feet past the hole. When I go to Augusta, it’s not going to be like that. When I see them hit it, I know the speeds now, because I’ve seen them do it.”
Leng has experienced the completion at Augusta National. The 2015 Drive, Chip and Putt national champion will return for the first time since he won the Boys 7-9 division in a playoff. This time, he’ll return as the Boys 12-13 division western region champion after he made a 30-foot putt to vanquish Ian Chapital of Lahaina, Hawaii, by one point.
Not only did he make the 30-foot putt, Leng made the 15-footer that preceded it.
“I knew I had to make the 30 footer. I knew the scores. I was thinking should l lag it to the 20 (-point) circle to get a top-three finish or should I go for it,” he said. “I figured I was going to go for it and it went right in the center of the hole. I knew it was in after about one second.”
Rasmussen knew he had to improve the chipping that let him down last year. En route to winning the Boys 10-11 division, he improved his chipping while winning the driving and losing a tiebreaker for first in the putting.
“It was rough last year,” Rasmussen said. “I was bummed, but I practiced a lot more now and now I made it. I used it as a motivation to get back here.”
Cepeda used the motivation of watching Kate Nakaoka become the first Hawaiian to reach Augusta National last year. The Kaawaa, Hawaii, resident also used her weekly games with younger sister and fellow competitor Ava (who competed in the Girls 10-11 division) and a newfound calm to become the second Hawaiian to reach the finals.
“My game has really improved in the last couple months because I’ve been staying calm after every shot,” said Cepeda, who won the putting discipline with 60 points. “I was calm and my game is the best it’s ever been. I needed to stay calm, and they had it on the same green as last year, so I was more comfortable on the greens.”
Joining that quintet at the National Finals next April will be fellow age-group winners Tyler Kowack (Boys 14-15) of San Diego, Emiko Sverduk of Long Beach, Calif., in the Girls 14-15 division and Alexis Vakasiuola of San Tan Valley, Ariz., who captured the Girls 10-11 division.
Nikki Gatch, the regional league manager for the PGA of America, marveled at the level of talent arrayed before her.
“I think kids are passionate about the game now and passionate about getting better and becoming the best they can be,” she said. “I just love seeing the smiles on their faces and seeing their eyes go directly to the scoreboard. You can see them calculating in their heads and the excitement.
“I always love this event because you see all the emotions.”