OAKMONT, Pa. – For competitors in the Drive, Chip and Putt regional at Oakmont Country Club, one of the most challenging golf courses in the country shone under a beautiful and bright late-summer sky on Saturday. The youngsters who arrived here couldn’t have been presented with a better canvas to paint their own picture – one that would ultimately have an invitation to Augusta National Golf Club as the centerpiece.
Nearly 100 junior golfers competing in the regional qualifier got first-hand glimpses of a nine-time U.S. Open venue, and even if they didn’t play every hole, they were appropriately impressed. There is perhaps no better reminder of the opportunities that await in Drive, Chip and Putt journey than the hallowed grounds where regional qualifying takes place.
Robert Gillespie, the Player Development Coordinator for the Tri-State Section PGA which conducted the qualifier, was still smiling about the day a few hours after it ended.
"I think it was a fantastic day with 96 kids who all came prepared to play,” Gillespie said. "It was a great day for junior golf, great day for everybody. The kids had a great day of fun, and the Oakmont staff was wonderful to us. That speaks volumes about how important this event is to Oakmont Country Club."
The day-long competition was highlighted by many strong performances, but perhaps none so noteworthy as what Helen Yeung of Beltsville, Md., did in the Girls 14-15 division.
In a contest where players are scored on three drives, three chip shots and three putts, Yeung was perfect with her putter in her hands.
“The first one (from six feet) got to the edge and fell in, the second (from 15 feet) was right in the middle and the third (from 30 feet) fell in from the side,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes putting is the best thing in my game. It’s different every day.”
That performance netted a perfect score of 75 points and, along with a score of 49 in driving and 40 in chipping, gave her an impressive 164-point total that allowed her to easily outdistance the rest of her age group.
“Everything was very good for me,” Yeung said. “I was so happy for the support of my family and friends today.”
Yeung’s performance put her in a class by herself as the highest scorer of the day, but Nicholas Werner of Wilkes Barre, Pa., was in a pretty good class, too. On Oakmont’s practice green near the practice range, players learned quickly about the meaning of hard and fast. Most of the youngsters had never putted on a surface that smooth and fast.
Werner, the Boys 12-13 division champion, made the six-footer, made the 15-footer then watched the 30-footer roll just past the 20-point mark to leave him with 65 points in the putting competition. He finished with a total of 140 points, and later sang the praises of Oakmont’s putting surfaces.
“These greens were absolutely perfect,” he said. “They are the fastest and best greens I’ve ever played on. For me, that’s the most fun part of the game for me. I just love putting.”
Werner has competed in Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying every year since 2013 – in other words, every year of its existence. He has advanced to a regional qualifier three times.
“It was a lot of fun today and getting to the [National] Finals is very exciting,” he said.
For Alexander Leskovansky, a high school sophomore from Houtzdale, Pa., Saturday at Oakmont represented one final shot at a National Finals berth. Competing in the Boys 14-15 division, this marks his fourth and final Drive, Chip and Putt appearance. His performance at Oakmont was perfectly timed, and he’ll be rewarded with a special trip to Augusta National Golf Club in early April.
“It was insane, truly insane,” said Leskovansky, who advanced with a score of 111 points. “I never saw this coming. I dreamed it would happen, but never really thought it would. I guess I didn’t think I was good enough, but I guess I am. It’s just incredible.”
Who knows how life will treat Leskovansky as he grows up, but this day spent in suburban Pittsburgh could well be a turning point in his life.
“It’s going to be very exciting until April, but very frustrating, too, because I can’t wait to get there,” he said.
Other boys division winners included Gavin Baker of Greencastle, Pa., who topped the Boys 10-11 age group on the strength of his short game. The majority of his 123 points came from chipping and putting. Ryan Hooker of Oakton, Va., won the Boys 7-9 division by just a slim four-point margin with his 120-point total.
Jillian Burks of Paoli, Pa., won the Girls 10-11 division with 133 points, the most of which came during the chipping portion of the competition. Alexis Card of Cambridge, Ontario, was the Girls 7-9 age division winner with 107 points.
Some of the youngsters who test themselves through Drive, Chip and Putt qualifiers participate in other sports and some have other hobbies. Amelia Cho of Ashburn, Va., winner of the Girls 12-13 division, is among those with a very interesting talent in addition to golf.
Cho not only plays classical guitar but also takes Royal Conservancy of Music Examinations with her chosen instrument. The RCM exams are a way for her to measure her achievements as a guitarist against a national standard.
In her third trip to Drive, Chip and Putt regionals, a strong performance earned Cho a ticket to Augusta National.
“My drives during warmup weren’t very good, but I was very surprised when all of three of them landed in bounds in the competition,” said Cho, who totaled 141 points. “I had a chip-in and I made two putts so it was a good day. I’m excited to be going to the finals and my dad is really excited.”
Talk about a place to test herself against the very best.