By Mike Dudurich
This has been a great year for Oakmont Country Club, starting with 156 of the best golfers in the world spending a soggy week in June at the historic club to compete in the U.S. Open.
When the sun finally set on the nation’s championship, only Dustin Johnson left the western Pennsylvania club with a big smile on his face. His first major championship turned out to be a big test and he survived, spurring him on to a great summer on the PGA Tour.
Sunday afternoon, there were many more smiling faces leaving Oakmont at the conclusion of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship’s regional final.
On a picture-perfect day in suburban Pittsburgh, four boys and four girls hit better shots than anyone else in their age division and earned their way into the National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club in April 2017.
Those youngsters not only got to spend the day at one of the great clubs in the world, their victory earned them the right to spend the day before the 2017 Masters begins at Augusta National trying to become the best in the nation in their age group.
Those youngsters, ranging in age from 7-15, provided wonderful stories and the smiles they wore were those filled with youthful enthusiasm and pure joy.
Like 9-year-old Ethan Ritter of New Albany, Ohio. He is a triplet and also has an older sister, Anna, who also competed Sunday. As you might expect, he doesn’t have a great deal of experience in public speaking, but he took the microphone when it was handed to him after medals had been presented.
“I want to thank my mom and dad,” he said in a voice that was breaking. “I want to thank my parents for supporting me.”
With that, he started to cry and ran to his mom for a big hug.
His win was by a single point, 85-84, and the third-place finisher had 83.
And then there was 8-year-old Gianna Clemente of Warren, Ohio. Her 85 points were more than enough to easily outdistance the competition in the Girls 7-9 group.
Dressed in her pink and white outfit, she bounced around the porch outside the Oakmont club, radiating with a huge smile.
“I like to him my driver because you can hit it as far as you can,” she said matter-of-factly.
She knows about winning and playing well under pressure. She made a hole-in-one at the U.S. Kids World Championship, winning it in 2015 and finishing second this year in Pinehurst, N.C.
Gianna has already been to Augusta National, going with her dad and two of his friends.
“My best friend lost there last year, but it was beautiful,” she said. “It was special to be there.”
The first phone call she made after winning was to Nana, her grandmother.
“I made it to Augusta,” she exclaimed and then proceeded to tell Nana she would call back later because she had other calls to make.
The Raines family from Galena, Ohio, was hoping for a pair of wins when they came to Oakmont.
Last year, younger Mia Raines won her age group and spent a couple days in early April in Augusta.
This year, older sister Leila was the one to earn that trip. She won the Girls 14-15 age group.
“It’s going to be so much fun,” Leila said when asked for her reaction to winning. She admitted to being sad because Mia missed repeating by six points. “My driver was really good today and overall I just didn’t make any big mistakes.”
Her favorite professional golfer, by the way, is Jason Day, who lives about 10 miles from where the Raines live.
Eleven-year-old Hayden Adams of Lexington, Ky., won the Boys 10-11 age group with 121 points. Not bad for a youngster who was making his debut in the DCP event.
“I wanted to compete last year, but I was injured so I couldn’t,” Adams said. “I’m really glad I did it. Usually my putting and chipping are the strength of my game, but today my chipping was terrible.”
His trip to Augusta will be his first and he admitted he hadn’t watched the television broadcasts of the finals in previous years.
“I’ve always said I wanted to, but just never do,” he said.
Adams professes to have the kind of attitude all golfers, regardless of their age, should have.
“Golf is just fun for me,” he said. “And the more success I have, the more fun it is.”
Other winners at Oakmont included Sarah Lydic of Ocean View, Del., in Girls 9-10; Julie Rabadam of Upper Arlington, Ohio in Girls 12-13; Luke Coyle of Campbellsville, Ky., in Boys 12-13; and Clay Merchant of Noblesville, Ind., in Boys 14-15.