By John Steinbreder
It is the day before the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, and a tone of seriousness sets in among the players as they go through their practice routines.
Some of the 80 youngsters who have made it to the event's prestigious conclusion hit bump-and-runs onto the chipping green at The River Golf Club in North Augusta, South Carolina, while others grind over 5- and 10-foot putts, applying a bit of body English as their balls near the cups. The participants may not be professionals, but they certainly act as if they were. They dress the part, too, in bold and matching colors announcing who their favorite golfers are.
In every case, their parents and coaches are standing nearby. Several hold damp towels in their hands and are quick to wipe off clubs and balls. Other moms and dads lean against clubs of their own as they scrutinize swings and strokes and offer advice.
“I will practice for four hours today,” said 15-year-old Kyra Cox, a top-ranked junior player from South Salem, New York, and a 1-handicap. “I hit some drives, then putted for a while and then hit some chips after I arrived this morning. And now I am about to start another loop and do it all over again. I am really excited about the finals tomorrow and want to be sure I am ready when I go to Augusta National tomorrow.”
Third-grader Jayden Lizama of Elk Grove, California, is just as focused on his preparation. “We are going to be here for two hours today,” he said. “I want to work mostly on my putting, and tomorrow I want to win.”
Players and parents alike are working hard, and their commitment is apparent. So is the enormity of the moment, but that is understandable, for the DCP National Finals are tomorrow, and they are being played at the site of the Masters. For a golfer of any age, the stage could not be grander.
A welcome sense of levity washes over The River Golf Club in the early afternoon, however, when 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and a pair of iconic pop stars, Justin Timberlake and Niall Horan, surprise the contestants with a visit to their practice ground. Standing by the putting green, the celebrities chat cheerfully with the players, posing for selfies with them and signing balls and hats. A large group selfie completes the gathering.
“It’s great that Augusta National is bringing young people to the game for this event,” said Timberlake, a low-handicap golfer who started playing as a pre-teen in his native Tennessee. “It’s exciting and really, really cool.”
Horan, the One Direction singer, came to Augusta National last year to caddie in the Par 3 Contest for friend and fellow Irishman Rory McIlroy.
“These are the best 80 kids in the country and tomorrow is going to be very interesting,” Horan said. “It’s such a great idea to bring the best golfers together for one final competition at Augusta National. Pretty cool.
“These are kids who are still 7, 8 and 9 years old and up who are still very impressionable and will learn a lot in these years. It was great to come and visit with them and surprise them.”
And for a moment, the boys and girls who will be walking on to the storied grounds of Augusta National on Sunday forget all about the pressure of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals and do a bit of stargazing.
It makes their practice day perfect.