Players and Parents Exude Excitement at TGR Learning Lab

By Brian Robin

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The delightful squeals of Abbie Medina could have brought the floor-to-ceiling painting of Tiger Woods that protectively looms over the lobby of his Learning Lab to life.

“I got third place. I want to come here again,” Medina squealed, the sheer joy echoing throughout the veranda overlooking the short-game practice area at the TGR Learning Lab in Anaheim, Calif. The facility played host to the Southern California opener of local qualifying for the 2018 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.

Medina’s third-place came in the chipping discipline, yet the 8-year-old from Ventura, Calif., did not finish in the top three in her age and gender group, meaning she won’t be moving past Saturday’s local qualifying. But that didn’t stop Medina from elatedly clutching her ribbon with pride.

Her excitement perfectly mirrored the glee felt by those who did finish in the top three when they conquered their nerves, their fellow competitors and the 95-degree heat on a sunny, Southern California day to earn a spot in the subregional on August 14 at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Take Arlen Bang, who won the Boys 10-11 division via a marvelous 60-points-out-of-75 putting effort. The 10-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif., smiled as he said he was “really nervous,” but not only did that not show with his 11-point victory over Jaxon Nguyen – one of three Nguyens in the competition and the only one of his family to advance – but it also paid off in more ways than one.

Five, to be exact – the amount of money he won from older brother Preston via a friendly bet the two had on who would advance. Arlen did, Preston didn’t. Ergo, Big Brother pays off Little Brother.

“It will feel like that’s the trophy I won,” Arlen said, smiling all the way.

The smiles weren’t confined to competitors. Take Martin Duarte, a humble, soft-spoken life coach for Easter Seals in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk. Duarte first watched his son, Ralph, finish second in the Boys 7-9 division, then watched daughter Mitzi do the same in the Girls 12-13 division. Not the easiest feat to manage, getting two offspring through, as the Nguyens and Bangs could attest.

Martin Duarte said his command of English “isn’t the greatest.” No matter; his ever-present smile was worth 1,000 words as he heard the story of Ralph helping his big sister read putts.

And take Adey Mohamed, the mother of Boys 12-13 winner Mahamed Ibrahim and his sister, Salma, who finished fourth in the Girls 12-13 division, two points out of third. She and her husband fled Somalia in 2003 in the depths of that country’s civil war and settled in Culver City, Calif. She smiled as she recalled the story of her husband seeing Tiger Woods play and immediately introducing their oldest, 12-year-old Mahamed, to the game not long after he could walk.

Perhaps that’s where the not-lacking-in-self-confidence Mahamed got his focus. After banking 126 points, Mahamed explained his mental philosophy.

“Before I go out on the golf course, I feel great. I feel like I’m going to win today. I have a great chance of winning. Then, I go out there and I win,” he said.

When it came to nerves, Mahamed was the exception, rather than the rule. To a person, most of the competitors said they were more nervous competing in Drive, Chip and Putt than they were playing in any age-group tournaments.

“Usually I don’t do as well on these things, because I get more nervous than I do on real tournaments. Maybe because I really want to go to Augusta and try to watch the Masters too,” Mitzi Duarte said.

“That’s because of the prize -- Augusta,” said Paul Duarte, the head professional at Palos Verdes Country Club and the proud father of Mia and Maile Duarte, who were competing in their first golf competition. “These kids see that on television, they see kids their age on that kind of stage, and it provides a powerful motivator for them to work hard to get to that stage themselves.”

Benjamin Scott of Manhattan Beach won the Boys 14-15 division with the day’s top score (161), followed by Matthew Ibarra and Jonathan Tiglao. Behind Ibrahim in the Boys 12-13 division were Aadhik Annamalai and Dylan Brack. In the Boys 7-9 division, Taylor Reser rode a 65-point putting performance to the title, with Ralph Duarte and Noah Tio joining him in advancing.

Kamille Dimayuga of nearby Buena Park, the only player in the field to reach the West Regional last year, won the Girls 14-15, with Kate Watanasiripong and Shani Waite also advancing. Julianne Canda captured the Girls 12-13 Division, with Mitzi Duarte and Sophia Kurtz also earning subregional spots. Victoria Valenzuela of Westminster, Calif., won the Girls 10-11 Division, followed by Reese Wilkins and Scarlett Coons.

Anna Maentz of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who came from hockey practice, brought her power play to bear by winning the Girls 7-9 division. Madelyn Cheng and Gaby Ho rounded out that division’s top-three.

“That is my favorite division, because last year I was fortunate enough to go back to the National Finals at Augusta and serve as a chaperone for the Girls 7-9 division,” said Junko Suzuki, the Southern California PGA Section director of player development and TGA programming. “Seeing everything take place and seeing what these kids were actually working for, being there in person and seeing the action from the participant’s perspective was awesome. Hearing some of these kids saying ‘Yeah, I got a ribbon,’ I think that definitely tugs on the strings of my heart of why I love this game so much.”