By Josh Sens
Later summer fog rolled in off the Pacific Ocean, blanketing the Olympic Club in a layer of grey, but Mia Herendeen was all smiles and sunshine, a proud 9-year-old in a hot pink outfit, celebrating beside the putting green.
She’d flown into San Francisco the night before with her father, Jon, and had spent the morning, she said, “pretty much just hanging out at a Starbucks near the airport.”
She now had her mind on someplace more exciting. She’d just earned a trip to Augusta, Georgia, and an April drive down Magnolia Lane.
An easy-going fourth-grader from Bellevue, Wash., Herendeen wasn’t the longest hitter in the Girls 7-9 division of the regional finals for the fourth Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which played out Saturday at the Olympic Club.
But she was deadly enough with her wedge and putter to capture the title in her age division.
With the win, she became one of 80 young golfers who will move to the national finals of the competition, which will be held on Sunday, April 2, prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament.
“I didn’t really come here expecting to win,” Herendeen said. “My main goal was to have fun.”
She had plenty of kindred spirits at the historic San Francisco golf club, where 80 boys and girls, ages 7-15, had turned up to compete, ringed by supportive throngs of family and friends.
“Just getting this far is an achievement,” said Chris Thomas, executive director of the Northern California section of the PGA of America, addressing a gathering of players whose backgrounds were as varied as their experiences in the game.
They included 11-year-old Howard Shu of Saratoga, Calif., who grew up in a family of non-golfers but honed his putting skills at a miniature golf course near his home. By day’s end in San Francisco, he’d earned an invite to a grander venue—the home of the Masters – by winning the Boys 10-11 division.
“It’s pretty cool,” Howard said. “When I started, I never thought I would have come this far.”
Marcus Page is headed to Augusta, too, thanks to his win in the Boys 12-13 division, though his trip almost seems predestined. A resident of Los Gatos, Calif., he was born in Australia on an auspicious sporting date: Masters Sunday, 2004, the day Phil Mickelson captured his first Green Jacket. Like Mickelson, Marcus plays left-handed, and he grew up trying to emulate the original Lefty’s swing. Never mind that his favorite player is Jordan Spieth.
“The whole Phil thing also kind of runs in his blood,” Marcus’ mother, Christine, said.
Helping cultivate connections to the game was exactly what the Masters Tournament, the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America had in mind when they first conceived of the DCP Championship. Along the way, of course, young golfers develop other attributes as well.
Take Riley Yang, of San Jose, Calif., who showed resilience beyond her years after knocking her first drive of the day out of bounds. Shaking off the errant shot, the 11-year-old bounced back to win her age division, with her parents and two sisters looking on.
“One thing she’s really learned by playing is persistence and determination,” Riley’s father, Shane, said. “We’ll go out to practice chipping, and she won’t want to leave until she holes one out.”
Not that Riley came off as particularly intense.
Asked what she liked most about golf, she said, “Getting to spend time on the course with her family.”
When she wasn’t playing, watching golf on TV didn’t hold much interest for her. Her favorite players? A toss up between Lydia Ko and Michelle Wie.
“But probably Michelle Wie,” she said, “because she has a dog.”
Joining Herendeen, Yang, Shu and Page in Augusta will be Jeff Seong of Tacoma, Wash. (Boys 7-9), Malia Schroeder of Arlington, Wash. (Girls 12-13), Baylee Hammericksen of Medford, Ore. (Girls 14-15) and Jack McMullin of Seattle (Boys 14-15).
For Herendeen, naming a favorite player is a no-brainer: it’s her father, Jon, a former collegiate golfer who introduced her to the game at their home club in Washington. She loved to play, she said, but other interests frequently come first for her, like jazz dance and hanging out with her friends.
“I think that’s one of the things that really helps her on the course,” her father said. “She’s really happy-go-lucky.”
As he spoke, Mia stood beside him in her pink skirt and top, smiling. A trip to Georgia was set for April. But for now, she had another destination in mind: Ghirardelli Square for the ice cream sundae her dad had promised her.
“Cookies and cream, that’s my favorite flavor,” Mia said.
Augusta National would be the cherry on top.