Payne Welcomes Young Golfers to Augusta

Inspiration comes in many forms and from many places.

The inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club will break new ground – on a very special ground – for all aspiring golfers who will be watching from a distance when the competition begins Sunday. And with that, the event will grow and prosper.

That’s the message Billy Payne, Chairman at Augusta National, delivered Saturday at the Welcome Reception which greeted the 88 contestants who have qualified for the finals in four age categories: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15.

“All of you already are winners,” Payne said in his opening remarks. “Your remarkable skills have allowed you to advance to these finals. By doing so you have already achieved what every golfer dreams. … You have earned the right to compete at Augusta National.

“Millions of kids will be inspired by your stories. Untold thousands will visualize themselves in your shoes and will begin their dreams of competing on these hallowed grounds in years to come. … As we all know, beginning Monday, Augusta National Golf Club belongs to the greatest golfers of our time. But (Sunday) ... it belongs to you.”

The national finalists – 44 each girls and boys – hail from 27 states, Washington, D.C. and Canada.

The finalists represent the best of the best from the 110 local qualifying events that were held in 19 states and Washington, D.C. The qualifying rounds attracted more than 17,000 young golfers who then advanced to 11 regional venues from New York to California.

The young contestants were greeted by Payne; Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America; and Tom O’Toole, president of the United States Golf Association. Drive, Chip and Putt is a unique vision of the three founding organizations who embarked on the initiative a little more than a year ago.

“You don’t think it’s possible for this week to get any better,” Bishop said. “There’s nothing I look forward to more than the Masters. But Drive, Chip and Putt has done that.

“The greatest thing about Drive, Chip and Putt is this is an example when three entities in golf work together what can happen."

O’Toole said he can’t recall a time when there was so much energy surrounding Augusta National.

“Everybody is so excited,” O’Toole told the gathering. “Why is everybody so excited? Because of you. You will inspire boys and girls across the land to give golf a try. Remember, you are ambassadors … to golf’s future.

“I would have loved to compete in a competition like this when I was young many years ago. Why? Because of the fun quotient.”

J.J. Weaver, co-professional at Augusta National, presided over a briefing Saturday for the golfers and their chaperones. Weaver reviewed the rules in detail. The golfers will be identified by uniforms, which, Weaver said, brings a team flare to the competition. Pro V1 golf balls will be provided for the competition, but the golfers are allowed to play with their preferred ball.

There are many fascinating stories among the young golfers who have reached the finals at Augusta National, not the least of which is the attraction each has discovered in golf.

For Leo Cheng, 11, and his father, Andy, the inspiration comes from a Green Jacket. Andy Cheng asked Weaver if the Drive, Chip and Putt winners would be receiving Green Jackets. No, Weaver said, trophies. But Andy said he’s already purchased a green jacket for his son – win, lose or draw Sunday.

For Nolan Haynes, 9, of the Illinois region, inspiration comes from his father, Todd’s, enjoyment and participation in the game. Nolan wants to be a professional golfer.

Nine-year-old finalists Sky Sudberry and Alexa Pano appeared in the Justin Timberlake-produced documentary, “The Short Game.” Timberlake, the recording and movie mega-star, is an avid golfer.

Another 9-year-old, Andrew Reyes, used a special ball in qualifying. It was given to him by 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson at the 2013 U.S. Open.

Peyton Rho, 8, is named after another famous Peyton (Manning) who is a dedicated golfer when he isn’t passing the football for the Denver Broncos.

It’s no surprise that Lucy Li has reached the finals. She qualified for the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur at age 10, a record for the youngest ever. She broke the record previously held by Latanna Stone, who also has qualified for the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. They will compete in different age categories. Stone, according to the Florida State Golf Association, already has won more than 100 tournaments.

Payne concluded his welcome on Saturday by saying, “As you are already discovering, golf can take you to some very special places. I encourage you to think of (Sunday) as the beginning, not the end, of a long and wonderful journey … a lifetime love affair with golf. Good luck tomorrow, and thank you for being such an inspiration to all of us.”

Registration for 2015 opens Sunday morning.

Golf Channel will dedicate its full production resources to televising the Drive, Chip and Putt live Sunday morning. The network’s five hours of live coverage will include a pre-game show from the grounds of Augusta National and four hours of live competition. Golf Channel also will dedicate pre- and post-event news coverage on its daily news shows, Golf Central and Morning Drive, and at GolfChannel.com.