Qualifier Spotlight: For Participants at Pinewild, Golf is Family Fun

by Kurt Dusterberg

Pinehurst, N.C. -- Danielle Jaeck always enjoys playing golf, but she admitted to having extra motivation for the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship local qualifier at Pinewild Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C., on May 13. Her father, Ken, promised her a reward if she won the putting competition.

“A kitten,” 7-year-old Danielle revealed. “The only pets we've ever had were fishes and caterpillars.”

The morning began with cloud cover and light jackets, but the day went smoothly for this free junior golf development program. With the driving range, chipping green and putting green close together, parents and event officials were able to cheer on all the nearby participants.

Designed for boys and girls ages 7-15, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a joint initiative founded by the PGA of America, USGA and the Masters Tournament. The top three boys and girls in each of four age divisions can advance through local, subregional and regional qualifying to earn a place in the National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club the Sunday before the Masters Tournament each year.

Jaeck took home a third-place ribbon in the Girls 7-9 age division, and she explained why she loves to work on the greens.

“Usually I only have to hit it short distances,” she said. “It's a little bit easier than driving and chipping.”

She began playing golf a year ago at her local First Tee facility, and her father sees how the game has helped Danielle. He hopes it pays dividends down the road, too.

“I think it's an important part of life, the social skills they can learn,” Ken Jaeck said. “Also, The First Tee teaches them respect and courage and other things beside golf. And I'd like to see my girls get good so they can play with me when I retire.”

The event drew 96 participants to Pinewild. Each golfer had three drives, chips and putts. The tee shots earned points for distance and fairway accuracy, while chips and putts were rewarded for their proximity to the hole. The top overall scorers in each age group advanced to the subregional at Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., on July 29.

Wells Kuester played in his first local qualifier in the Boys 7-9 division. His father wanted him to take part because the event felt like the right combination of competition and enjoyment.

“It's a low-pressure environment and they really make sure to retain a lot of the fun elements in it,” Eric Kuester said. “You want to make sure you're fostering continual improvement and interest in the game at this young age.”

There were spirited competitions in all age groups, but the girls showed a knack for putting. Grace Ridenour made putts of six and 15 feet before her 30-foot attempt just missed. She plays competitively, but she likes that she can share the game with her family.

“I like spending time with my Dad and my Mom, just having family time,” said Ridenour, who plays at Lochmere Golf Club in Cary, N.C. “I have had a couple coaches. I progress a lot every time I go with them.”

While Ridenour won the Girls 10-11 putting competition, Emma Dennis gave her a run by sinking a 15-foot putt of her own.

“I usually like putting because I have to see where it breaks,” Dennis said, noting that her dad taught her to read greens.

“We enjoy watching [the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals] every year on TV from Augusta,” said Emma's mother, Mandy. “My husband has been playing since he was five, so it's natural he would pass it on to his daughter.”

The morning chill wore off and the sun came out in time for the 12-13 and 14-15 age groups to round out the day. A top-notch staff and facility assured the event's success.

“Pinewild is a great facility,” said Kurt Battenberg, the Carolinas PGA assistant executive director. “The layout is perfect for conducting a Drive, Chip and Putt. But the key to any of these competitions is the volunteers. They have a tremendous group, about 16 volunteers, all members of Pinewild Country Club.”

By the time the 14-and 15-year-olds got on the course, Abbie Daquila was ready. She finished first overall in the Girls 14-15 division, earning one of the 24 spots in the Greensboro subregional. An eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant, N.C., she only recently fell for golf.

“I've been playing about two years,” she said. “I've played basketball, softball and soccer, but this is my main sport now. It's just more fun.”