Qualifier Spotlight: New and Returning Champions Emerge at Val Halla

CUMBERLAND, MAINE — More than 100 young golfers from far and near took the first step Saturday, June 3, toward earning a spot next April in the National Finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National prior to the start of the Masters Tournament.

Held at the community-owned Val Halla Golf & Rec Center, located about 15 miles up the coast from Portland, the Maine qualifier drew youngsters from two other northeastern states as well as the Canadian province of Quebec.

On Saturday, 24 players – the top three finishers in each of the four boys and girls age groups – advanced to the subregional qualifier, scheduled for August 13 at the Renaissance Golf Club in Haverhill, Mass.

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.

“This is the third year we’ve been coming down here, and it’s grown every year,” said Jamie Ritter of Searsmont, a farming community located about 75 miles north of Cumberland. “It’s terrific what they do for these kids. I think it’s the best thing.”

Ritter’s son James competed in the 12-13 age group, which held the largest number of young golfers. Though his son did not advance to the subregional qualifier, Ritter said, “It’s a terrific program, and I think anything we can do to keep these kids golfing and having fun is awesome.”

The majority of golfers who competed at Val Halla live in Maine, but small contingents of golfers also came from eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and Canada.

This was the second year Sarah Maude Martel, a 14-year-old secondary school student from Laurierville, Quebec, had made the five-hour road trip across the border with her family to participate in the Maine event. Laurierville, a town of nearly 1,200 people, is located midway between Montreal and Quebec City.

“I began to play golf last year,” she said in her accented English, “but I hit balls (at a driving range) some times before. I like to hit golf balls, and I like to see where they land.”

For the second consecutive year Martel finished first in her age group.

Sebastien Martinez, who finished second in the 10-11 age group to advance to the Massachusetts subregional, had a much shorter trip to get to the local qualifier. He lives in Yarmouth, a seven-minute automobile ride away from Val Halla, his home golf course. It was his fourth time competing in Drive, Chip and Putt.

“I love golf. I don’t know why I just love it,” said the fifth-grader, who began playing when he was five.

During the summer months, golf fills his days.

“We offer him other activities in the summer and this is all he wants to do,” said Thalia Meyes, his mother. “We drop him off at 8:30 (in the morning) and pick him up at 4:30 (in the afternoon). He plays in the PGA Junior League on Sunday nights and he practices Tuesday nights.

Like Martinez, Shivana Vona, a 12-year-old from Dover, N.H., advanced to the subregional qualifier for the first time in her fourth attempt to make the cut.

Her parents were both born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India.

“Until I moved up (to New England) in 2001, I didn’t know what golf was,” said Rajn Vona, her father.

Shivani, who began playing golf when she was six at the Portsmouth Country Club in New Hampshire, also has a busy summer golf schedule. It is the main reason she entered the Maine qualifier.

“This is the first qualifying round so we try to get it done as soon as we can,” her father said. “She plays in tournaments during the summer and we can’t fit the other qualifiers into her schedule. This is the first one and, I think, the closest one (to us), too.”

Qualifying around the country will continue throughout the summer and early fall, with the top 80 qualifiers advancing to next April’s National Finals on the Sunday before the start of the Masters.