The 80 competitors in the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals are all talented young golfers, but 12-year-old Alexa Pano stands apart.
Having finished third in the Girls 7-9 division in 2014 and won the Girls 10-11 last year, the home-schooled seventh-grader from Lake Worth, Fla., is now competing in Girls 12-13 as the first three-time national finalist.
“It’s really special,” Pano said. “To be able to experience it three times rather than just being lucky enough to do it once is really cool.”
Doing distinctive things in golf is nothing new for Pano, who started playing when she was 5 years old and has won more than 350 trophies. According to her father, Rick, she won 86 consecutive local junior events before she was out of elementary school.
“It’s a long process, like climbing a stairway,” Rick said. “Every once in a while you get to a level and you have a mirror there. And you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am. What do I want to do with it? What do I want to go to next?’ And the stairway never stops.”
Pano’s competitive journey intensified last summer. She went on a late birdie run and survived a playoff to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. After receiving a sponsor exemption, Pano became the youngest to play in a LPGA of Japan tour event. Shortly after her 12th birthday, in August, she won the PDQ/Philadelphia Runner Junior, becoming one of the youngest winners in American Junior Golf Association history.
"Drive, Chip and Putt is definitely more nerve-wracking than going out for 18 holes. If you make a mistake, you don’t have a lot of chances to make up for it." - Alexa Pano
“She has big goals and she has big dreams,” said her father.
“I’d definitely like to one day make it on the LPGA Tour and win the U.S. Open before I’m 25,” Alexa said. “That’s kind of my goal. And I’d love to be a hall-of-famer one day.”
Pano already has achieved a measure of fame, thanks not only to her golf success but to her presence in “The Short Game,” a 2013 film, co-produced by Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, documenting a group of 7- and 8-year-olds in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.
“Everybody saw that movie and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” said Patrick Clemente, whose daughter Gianna is a National Finalist in the Girls 7-9 division and a pal of Alexa’s. “Gia was probably 4 when she saw it. Alexa couldn’t be more laid-back or friendly. She’s really nice to the younger kids.”
Pano was reminded of the long reach of “The Short Game” while she was playing in the tour event in Japan. A 4-year-old girl who had traveled several hours on a train with her family to attend the tournament, had a Japanese DVD of the movie for Pano to autograph and followed her around a hilly course.
“She was so cute,” Pano said. “I signed so many things over there. I signed a guy’s shoe. I signed one of those paper fans. I signed a phone case.”
Pano was wowed by several escalators that transported golfers from green to tee. The Japanese spectators were thrilled when Pano hit a driver off the fairway.
“They went nuts,” her father said. “They hadn’t seen that before. The first hole was a long par 5, and I looked at Alexa on the second shot and said, ‘Let’s give them what they came for.’ And she pulled out the driver and absolutely killed it. We started doing that when she was 7 or 8, playing against college kids. We’ve got to be able to make up for the distance differential. It’s a great weapon to have.”
Her extensive tournament experience will be a help for Pano in the Drive, Chip and Putt Finals, but the skills competition is far different from stroke play.
“I don’t get nervous when I’m golfing,” Pano said. “I don’t get happy when I make a birdie or upset when I make a bogey. I’m usually relaxed. Drive, Chip and Putt is definitely more nerve-wracking than going out for 18 holes. If you make a mistake, you don’t have a lot of chances to make up for it. The first year, I was very nervous. Last year I was a lot calmer.”