MAMARONECK, N.Y. — There is history at Winged Foot Golf Club, plenty of it.
Given that rich heritage, Bob Baldassari asked a natural question as he stood behind the first hole of Winged Foot’s West Course Sunday.
“I wonder if they know who has hit off that tee?” said Baldassari, senior director for player development for the PGA of America.
He could have been talking about Bobby Jones (1929 U.S. Open champion on the West Course), Billy Casper (1959 U.S. Open) or Davis Love III (1997 PGA Championship). Or just about any top-flight golfer in the last 90-plus years.
On a bright, crisp morning with lots of sun on their backs and a little wind in their faces as they performed in the driving contest on No. 1 of the West Course, it was time for a new group of golfers to get a taste of Winged Foot.
They were the 96 participants in the Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier at one of America’s storied golf sites—host of five U.S. Opens with another scheduled for 2020—striving to advance to the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club on April 1, 2018, the Sunday before the Masters Tournament.
“This is a fantastic experience getting to come to a course like this,” said Boys 14-15 participant Carter Hassenplug of North East, Pa. “A lot of the best players have been here.”
This wasn’t a major championship, but it was a major day in the lives of the young people competing in four age groups for boys and girls.
Vanessa Borovilos of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, had been pointing toward another chance to qualify for the National Finals all year after having advanced to Augusta National in 2015 and 2016 but not making it a third year in a row.
“Her goal for the year was to get back to Augusta,” said Vanessa’s father, Dino. “She won a U.S. Kids World Championship this summer, but that she ranked qualifying for Augusta further up her list than winning that gives you an idea of how important this was to her.”
His daughter achieved her goal, winning the Girls 10-11 age division with 141 points while medaling in each skill.
Borovilos wasn’t the only person at Winged Foot to earn a third trip to the National Finals.
Megha Ganne of Holmdel, N.J., is returning to Augusta National after a victory in the Girls 14-15 category. Ganne, who made it to the National Finals in 2015 (sixth place) and 2017 (second place), showed perseverance after a poor effort on her first attempt in the chipping competition. She maintained her focus to defeat fellow New Jersey resident and friend Tiya Chowdary.
“I knew that the chip was going to be tough. Everybody was kind of talking about that,” Ganne said. “The first chip, I let it get to my head. I didn’t go through my full routine. When I got to putting, I knew that none of the girls were going to give up easily, and the putts were tricky. I had to really read them well, and I think I did a really good job with that. I’ve known Tiya since I was very little, and know she’s a good player. But with Drive, Chip and Putt, you have to look out for everyone.”
Chowdary wasn’t the only friendly face at the regional for Ganne. Bailey Shoemaker of West Edmeston, N.Y., will be her partner in the U.S. Women’s Four-Ball Championship next year, and Shoemaker also will be at Augusta after advancing to the Finals in the Girls 12-13 division.
The fourth time in the Drive, Chip and Putt was the charm for Shoemaker, who took a more relaxed approach leading up to the regional.
“To be honest, in years past we’ve been trying extra hard, but this year we focused a little less,” Shoemaker said. “I said if I don’t make it this year, it’s fine. It took some of the pressure off.”
It was a good day for Canadians, with fellow Ontario residents Luke DelGobbo (Boys 14-15) and Landon Kelly (Boys 7-9) joining Borovilos in qualifying for the National Finals.
DelGobbo, who started playing golf when he was 11, “barely squeaked through” in the first qualifying stage but was up to the task Sunday, beating Joshua Ryan by 12 points.
Kelly won’t be the first from his family competing at Augusta National. His older sister, Nyah, made it to the Finals in 2014 when she was 9, the age her brother is now.
The highest point total for a winner was 153 by Nicholas Gross of Downingtown, Pa., in Boys 10-11, who holed two of three putts in racking up 65 points in that skill.
Between now and the Finals, Lance Hollingshead, who won Boys 12-13, won’t be concentrating just on golf. The 13-year-old from Basking Ridge, N.J., skis competitively in the winter—slalom and giant slalom, and he will be adding the Super G this season—and likes the athletic variety in his life.
“I like golf more, but I enjoy skiing too and think it keeps me from burning out, from playing too much golf and getting bored with it,” Hollingshead said. “It’s good to take my mind off golf every now and then.”
More than five hours after Theo Hutchins got the day started with three drives off the opening hole, Lily Zhang concluded it by winning the Girls 7-9 division. She passed up a local junior tournament near her home in Williamsville, N.Y., to compete in the Regional.
Needless to say, there were no regrets.
“This is a dream come true,” said Zhang, who now had her own bit of Winged Foot history.