Neighbors and Friends Qualify For Augusta at TPC Sawgrass

By Lisa D. Mickey

There were hugs, high fives and plenty of pictures taken among the parade of miniature Rickies, Jordans and Lydias at Saturday’s Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier, held in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at TPC Sawgrass,

But at the end of the day, eight boys and girls had earned their way to the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National next spring.

Posing with their medals and wearing the apparel brands of their favorite professional stars – including Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko – the juniors were oblivious to the late-summer heat and humidity that drove their parents toward any available spots of shade surrounding the Stadium Course practice area, where the competition was held.

Two players were especially excited to advance to the Finals. Kayla Bryant of Boca Raton, Fla., who won the Girls 7-9 division, and her down-the-street neighbor and good friend Chloe Kovelesky, who won the Girls 10-11 age group, were giddy with anticipation about going to Augusta next April.

“It’s really cool because we can go through everything together,” said Kovelesky, 9, a fifth grader. “Whatever happens, happens, but we’ll still be happy for each other.”

“I look up to Chloe and she and her dad have taught me a lot of new stuff in golf,” added Bryant, 8, a third grader, who didn’t advance past the local qualifier last year. “It’s really special that Chloe and I made it through together.”

Wearing a cap given to her by Boca Raton resident and LPGA player Morgan Pressel, Kovelesky earned her first trip to Augusta after three attempts. Pressel sent the junior player a good-luck message prior to the event.

“I’ll tell her I’m really excited because I made it to Augusta and I worked hard for it,” said Kovelesky.

Like Kovelesky, Tyler Mawhinney of Fleming Island, Fla., advanced to Augusta on his third attempt, winning the Boys 7-9 division.

Samuel Kodak of Naples, Fla., earned his second trip to Augusta National when he won the Boys 12-13 age division. Kodak went to the National Finals in 2014, the first year of the event, and thinks this time will be easier than his inaugural visit.

“I was 10 and the whole thing was new, so nobody really knew what the scores would be,” said Kodak, 13, a seventh grader. “This time, I think I’ll be more comfortable and not as nervous.”

Kodak will also be joined in Augusta by a friend, Braden Miller of Naples, Fla., who won the Boys 10-11 age group. Miller and Kodak played on the same elementary school golf team.

Miller’s sister, Brooke Miller, advanced into the regional Drive, Chip and Putt competition three years ago. The family will make its first trip to Augusta National on Braden’s third attempt to qualify.

“I always thought if I made it to the Masters Tournament, I’d get to see my favorite golfers,” said Miller, 9, wearing orange golf apparel. “For me, that would be Rickie Fowler.”

Norah Catlin of Zephyrhills, Fla., who won the Girls 12-13 division, admitted she “couldn’t sleep last night” because she was thinking about the competition. But when asked what she was looking forward to the most, Catlin smiled.

“I can’t wait to putt on those greens,” said Catlin, 13. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about them and I’ve watched the Drive, Chip and Putt on TV and everybody looks like they’re having a great time.”

Mimi Chen of Longwood, Fla., won the Girls 14-15 age division, while Aidan Kramer of Oviedo captured the Boys 14-15 event. It was the third attempt for both players to advance to Augusta.

“I’ve seen Augusta National in pictures and on TV, but I’m very excited to go play in golf heaven,” said Chen, 14, a member of the 2015 state champion Lake Mary Prep girls’ high school golf team and a fan of LPGA player Lydia Ko.

Kramer watches the Masters on TV every year and said he has always wanted to visit the golf course.

“It’s been a dream to go to Augusta National, but I thought I’d be a lot older when I went there for the first time,” said Kramer, 14, a high school freshman. “This is incredible.”

The Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals has also been incredible on many levels, said Bill Hughes, general manager at TPC Sawgrass.

“This platform and the hundreds of thousands of people it will affect in the game is going to move the needle for the next generation in a real positive way,” Hughes said.

Hughes said TPC Sawgrass is fortunate to host The Players Championship, but the Drive, Chip and Putt regional put a smile on the face of the 38-year PGA professional.

“We host unrivaled championships, but this event may be one of the most special days all year at TPC Sawgrass,” added Hughes.