New and Returning Participants Bring Big Smiles at Button Hole Qualifier

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Molly Smith, 14, who has participated in Drive, Chip and Putt every year since the inaugural competition in 2014, put forward a performance that was just as perfect as the warm spring weather at Saturday’s local qualifier at Button Hole in Providence, R.I.

With a total score of 172 – believed to be the highest score ever at this location – Smith easily earned a spot in subregional qualifying. The next best score in the entire field of 140 entrants – across four divisions of boys and girls (ages 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15) – was 128.

Advancing was nothing new for Smith. She made it all the way to the 2015 National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club when she was just 9 years old, and her family is hoping this is just the start of a return trip.

“Every time I come, I always just want to do better than what I did the last year,” Smith said. “So, I just kind of had a mindset of just try to hit three good drives, try to hit three good chips and try to hit three good putts and then see where you are.”

Smith had struggled with the chipping skill competition in past years and employed a new strategy this time around. Realizing that most competitors use a sand wedge for chipping, she decided to go with an 8-iron and play a little bump and run. The strategy paid off as she won each stage, including chipping, and earned the overall top score.

Molly is one of three daughters of Phil Smith, a former golf pro, and Lynn, who gave up her clubs for a tennis racket because her girls are beating her in golf.

Lynn spoke about the family goal to get back to Augusta National.

“The experience was unbelievable,” she said of the family’s first trip to the National Finals on the Sunday prior to the Masters Tournament. “[We] had dinner with Peter Jacobsen, which was great. We met Condoleezza Rice, [and took] pictures of [then-Augusta National Chairman] Billy Payne and the kids. It was great.”

A 14-member team from Wentworth Hills in Plainville, Mass., also entered the competition They were joined on site by two coaches, Bruce Hamilton and Peter Galeno, along with parents and others who came to show their support.

When asked if he thought the Drive, Chip and Putt program was a great way to bring young people into the game, Hamilton replied, “Absolutely. People say that the game is not what it used to be, that it’s declining a little bit. I don’t see it. I mean, I get kids who started in this who are now playing high school golf.”

Julia Nault, 11, was part of the Wentworth Hills team. All Nault wanted was improvement over her debut a year ago when she finished fifth.

“My goal was to get to Pinehills,” Nault said. She realized her goal with a first-place finish in her age group and qualified for the subregional at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, Mass.

Connor Knott was there Saturday as a first-time competitor. Knott, 8, plays soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis and also enjoys playing golf with his dad at their local course.

As a father seeing the competition for the first time, Jeff Knott said, “I think it’s very well-run, well-organized. To have the support of the community around here is terrific.”

For Knott, the experience was more about his son having a good time on the golf course, rather than reaching the national stage.

“I think that’s beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, pretty much,” Knott said. “We’re just here to have fun and learn about competition and try our best.”

This event was the second of 10 local qualifiers and two subregionals run by the New England PGA Section. Once June arrives and students are out of school for the summer, section staff organize one or two local qualifiers each week.

Chris Clayton, assistant tournament director for the New England PGA, summed the day up perfectly.

“Everyone is here for a good time,” he said. “Yes, it’s a competition, but it’s all about the smiles of the kids and that everyone is having fun and enjoying the game of golf.”