By Nick Hunter
The eyes of the golf world will focus on the Ryder Cup in three weeks in what could possibly be the biggest sporting event the state of Minnesota has ever seen.
But for one Saturday afternoon in Chaska, Minnesota, the focus was on perhaps the future of the game as Hazeltine National Golf Club hosted the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier.
On site at the imposing 7,600-yard championship course that will host the Ryder Cup Sept. 27-Oct. 2, a field of 80 competitors in four age divisions hoped to be among eight qualifiers to earn a spot in the National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club next April.
One of the first to earn a spot in next year’s championship was Jack Johnson, a Chaska, Minn., native who lives less than 10 minutes from the course and just wrapped up his first season as a caddie at Hazeltine.
“It feels great—it hasn’t quite set in yet, but I’m sure by tonight I’ll be a lot more excited,” Johnson said Saturday. “This is so cool—there’s not a better place to live.
“I get to caddie for some great members here who are great guys and they really help you a lot and tell you things that will help you not just on the course, but lessons that will help you for the rest of your life.”
A 278-yard drive lifted Johnson into third place in the driving portion of the event, earning 41 points before collecting 45 points for chipping. Adding another 40 points to his total during the putting portion, Johnson finished on top of the Boys 14-15 Division with 126 points, six points ahead of Nebraska’s Jason Kolbas.
“I had no idea what to expect today; the pressure and stakes are a lot higher today. I was just trying to play as well as I could,” he said. “I thought someone was going to come in at 140 and beat me.
“I hit two great drives to start and that kind of set the tone.”
Earning a trip to one of golf’s most prestigious locations next spring was just the beginning of Johnson’s big day Saturday as he received a congratulatory text message from Team USA Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III.
For Isabella McCauley, last year’s regional at Hazeltine brought disappointment and a few tears as she finished in a tie for first in the Girls 10-11 Division, before losing a tiebreaker as she watched her hopes of competing at Augusta National vanish.
“Last year it was hard because I thought I won, but it made me want to practice harder,” McCauley said. “I practiced so much coming to this event and it paid off. That little bit of practice can make all the difference in the world.”
McCauley, from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., finished fourth during the driving portion, scoring 36 points, before notching 31 points for chipping to earn a share of third place. She dropped her first putt from 6 feet and rolled in two crucial putts to earn 60 points during the putting portion to finish on top by four points. She will travel to Augusta as the winner of the Girls 12-13 Division.
“The 6-footer was pretty straight and somehow it dropped; the 15-footer and the 30-footer I had perfect speed,” McCauley said of her putting Saturday. “Everyone was blowing it way by [the 30-foot putt]; I just tapped it and it kept rolling and rolling and it was just a great putt.
“It feels good and it feels like I can breathe now. I was able to get here and I can put the past behind me. I’m so excited to be there and it’s going to be an awesome trip.”
By the time she was age 1, Emily St. Aubin said she’d experienced 100 rounds of golf from her golf seat, which was strapped in her dad’s golf cart.
Growing up in Ashley, N.D., a town of more than 700 people, St. Aubin said playing golf is a family affair and spends most of her time on the golf course with people much older than her.
“I play golf because I get to spend time with my family,” she said. “There aren’t many people in our town, so at 1 o’clock I go play with the 60- and 70-year-olds and they teach a lot about life and golf—it’s just a fun time. I bring them cookies sometimes—they love them.”
St. Aubin won both the driving and chipping aspects and captured the Girls 14-15 category by 13 points.
For 80 junior golfers, Saturday’s regional at Hazeltine could be just the beginning. After earning his spot in the National Finals by winning the Boys 12-13 group, Kaeden Nomm of Minocqua, Wis., waited patiently during the awards ceremony, posing for pictures before his older brother, Ansen, said, “Maybe you’ll be a (Ryder Cup) captain’s pick after this.”
Also, Emree Cameron of Nevada, Mo., and Udyat Sarangdevot of Omaha, Neb., advanced in the Girls and Boys 7-9 categories, respectively, and Lyla Louderbaugh of Buffalo, Mo., and Mateo Rascon of Burlington, Iowa, moved on in the Girls and Boys 10-11, respectively.