As Leo Cheng, 11, stood over the biggest putt of his young life, an image flashed into his mind. “I had a vision of Adam Scott making that putt,” said the young competitor from Northridge, Calif., referring to the 2013 Masters champion.
And then Cheng made it, too.
Sunday was a special day for the 88 contestants at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club. For the winners in the four age divisions of each gender, the experience produced indelible memories.
“Amazing,” said Natalie Pietromonaco of Auburn, Calif., winner in the Girls 12-13 division.
“A huge privilege to be here,” said nine-year-old Kelly Xu from Santa Monica, Calif.
With the finals in the Girls 7-9 division teeing off first, Xu became the first age-group champion in the history of the event. “I’m really excited all my hard work paid off for me,” she said afterward in a well-attended press conference with her fellow winners.
Xu was followed in the winner’s circle by seven other young golfers who overcame equal doses of excitement and nerves before large crowds who cheered their every shot. Included in the gallery were pros who will compete in the Masters Tournament this week, among them former Masters champion Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth, who fist-bumped the golfers and signed autographs for them.
But on this day, Augusta National belonged to the future of golf, and the Masters contestants on hand enjoyed watching the young golfers put their skills on display. The driving and chipping portions of the skills competition were held at the Tournament Practice Facility.
The putting competition began with two putts, of 6 and 30 feet, on the practice putting green just off the first tee. For their third and final putts, each participant walked down to the 18th green, where they attempted the same 20-foot putt that Scott holed on the 72nd hole at last year’s Masters en route to his playoff victory.
In all, two participants on Sunday pulled off the feat. Joining Cheng with the distinction was Patrick Welch, 14, of Providence, R.I. “I was trying to leave it close, and it went in,” he said modestly.
The top three participants in each age group received trophies. In addition to Xu and Pietromonaco, the other two girls champions were Lucy Li of Redwood Shores, Calif., in the 10-11 group, and Hunter Pate of Las Vegas in the 14-15 division. On the boys side, the victors included, in addition to Welch and Cheng, Treed Huang from Katy, Texas, in the 7-9 division, and Bryson Bianco of Tallahassee, Fla., 12-13.
Each participant competed in three skills – Drive, Chip and Putt. Points were accumulated based where each golfer finished, with the best in category earning 11 points, the next 10 points and so on. The points in the three skills were added and the highest number of accumulated points was declared the champion of his or her age category. To win spots in Sunday's National Finals, the participants excelled at local and regional qualifying events held last year across the country.
By any measure, the first Drive, Chip and Putt competition – the vision of Masters Chairman Billy Payne, the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association – was an unqualified success.
“When you’re doing something truly new you never know what to expect,” Payne said. But the “unbelievable and powerful and exciting” atmosphere he experienced Saturday evening at a reception honoring the competitors told Payne something special was afoot.
“It came clear to me a few months ago when the golfers got the invitations that they were going to bring that emotion to Augusta National, and they did,” Payne said.
Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, said, “My expectations were high and we fully exceeded that.”