The Road To Augusta

Fourteen-year-old Baylee Hammericksen from Medford, Ore., earned her place in the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on a crisp September afternoon, a day the young golfer wasn’t sure would ever happen, but one she’s certain she’ll never forget.

“It was crazy, all the emotions you’re feeling,” Hammericksen recalled. The eighth-grader said she experienced everything from excitement to fear, panic to relief, nervousness to joy. “I don’t know how to put it into words. When they put my name up [as a qualifier], it’s like the world stopped for a minute. I had this unbelievable amount of happiness.”

Ask the other 79 boys and girls who will join her this weekend at Augusta National, and they’ll no doubt tell you they felt something similar upon earning their chance to compete the Sunday prior to the Masters Tournament, and continue a new tradition that is having a meaningful impact not just on the sport, but on those playing it.

Alexa Pano poses with Masters champion Adam Scott after winning the Girls 10-11 Drive competition during the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. Pano went on to win the overall Girls 10-11 division.

Hammericksen and her peers traveled a long road to make it to the National Finals. First, they had to get through one local qualifier out of the more than 250 held last May, June and July. Next, they needed to advance out of one of the 50 sub-regional qualifiers in July and August. Finally, they had to win their age division at one of the 10 regional qualifiers in September.

At each stage, all those same emotions bubbled to the surface, increasing in intensity as they sometimes conflicted with one another. The prize was getting closer, but the pressure also was growing more intense. Mind you, the motivation to press on was always fairly simple. “Who doesn’t want to play at Augusta National?” said Jack Johnson, a native of Chaska, Minn., who won the Boys 14-15 regional title at Hazeltine National in his hometown. “For that, you put in the time to practice and make the sacrifice because the reward is just too awesome.”

Alexa Pano, a 12-year-old from Lake Worth, Fla., speaks from experience. She played in the 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, and did so again last year, winning the Girls 10-11 division. The “veteran” has qualified for a record third appearance in 2017, one of five former finalists to earn a trip back this year.

“Everyone remembers me from winning Drive, Chip and Putt. And I think that’s really cool. You don’t realize how big it is until you go there.” - Alexa Pano

Pano’s victory in 2016 was a springboard to a successful season that included competing in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball and U.S. Women’s Amateur, playing in a professional event in Japan and becoming one of the youngest winners of an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournament. But for Pano, one accomplishment stood out.

“When people come up to me, they don’t say, ‘Oh, congratulations on making it to the U.S. Amateur’ or ‘Congratulations on your AJGA win,’ ” Pano says. “Everyone remembers me from winning Drive, Chip and Putt. And I think that’s really cool. You don’t realize how big it is until you go there.”

Indeed, the popularity of Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals has grown every year since its inception in 2014, thanks in part to its live broadcast on Golf Channel. Now being contested for the fourth time, with juniors from 30 states and one Canadian province represented this year, the National Finals have carved a place on the Masters week schedule, becoming an eagerly awaited kickoff to the main tournament.

“I have friends who don’t necessarily like to play golf that much but they will play in the Drive, Chip and Putt every year,” Johnson said. “It’s a great way to get into the game.”

That was the hope when the Masters Tournament, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the PGA of America came together to create the event, with the goal of establishing a fun competition that would attract a new generation of juniors to golf. This remains the program’s principle mission.

Among the inaugural class of winners in 2014 was Treed Huang, who claimed the Boys 7-9 division title. When Huang returned that year to his home course in Katy, Texas, the staff at Meadowbrook Farms Golf Club had a banner created in his honor that hung in the clubhouse. Having failed to qualify in 2015 and 2016, Huang earned a return trip in 2017, competing now in the Boys 12-13 division.

Huang gets slightly embarrassed when asked if he is a role model who might inspire other juniors to play the game. Yet he has to look no further than down the hall of his house, into the room of his younger sister, Maye, for proof. The same day Treed earned his second trip to Augusta, Maye qualified to play in the Girls 7-9 division of the National Finals.

“It was so much fun watching him win,” Maye says. “I knew one day I wanted to be there, too.”

Treed Huang competes in the Boys 7-9 division at the 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals.

The Huangs aren’t the only siblings who have qualified to compete at Augusta National. Megha Ganne of Holmdel, N.J., who played in the 2015 National Finals, advanced again in the Girls 12-13 division while her younger sister, Sirina, qualified in the Girls 7-9 group.

“Last time was extremely nerve-wracking because it was the first time in front of that big of a crowd and all the cameras,” Megha says. “Now I know what it is like, and I have a much better chance of winning.”

Like most Drive, Chip and Putt participants, Megha plays junior golf back home. While preparing for the events can sometimes take on a life of its own, the competition itself is not all that much different from tournament golf. Many players suggest that the Drive, Chip and Putt experience has helped them improve as golfers overall, not to mention the focus on skill development.

After finishing last in local qualifying when she tried to reach the 2016 National Finals, Hammericksen told her father, Jamie, she didn’t feel like entering again for 2017. “She got a bad bounce on her first couple drives and lost her cool and that was it,” Jamie said. “And she didn’t really fight very hard to bring it back.”

Around the same time, Jamie coincidentally won tickets in the Masters random selection process for the Wednesday practice round. So father and daughter made the trip from Oregon, winding up among the patrons at Augusta National in person for the first time last April.

“When we went to Augusta, she was not going to enter [Drive, Chip and Putt],” Jamie said. “And then on the way back, she said, ‘I want to do this again.’ ” That’s when Jamie confessed he had already entered her: “I thought she might come around.”

This story also appeared in the 2017 Masters Journal.