PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A lot of high hopes and happy faces converge at TPC Sawgrass each year for Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifying.
But while the 96 boys and girls ages 7-15 brought along youthful smiles and junior-golf excitement on a sunny, early-fall day in North Florida, these kids were all business when it came to winning their respective age groups to advance to the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club next April.
“They already have their own routine and they are focused,” said PGA Tour winner Len Mattiace, who hit the ceremonial first drive to kick off Saturday’s regional qualifier.
“I started playing golf when I was 8 or 9, but I wasn’t anything like what they are now,” added Mattiace, who finished second at the 2003 Masters. ”Some of these kids are hitting it 200 yards right down the middle. They are the real deal.”
Already tuned in to what the pros wear, regional competitors filed into the practice grounds of TPC Sawgrass sporting the kind of orange apparel made popular by Rickie Fowler on the PGA Tour and the same colorful Puma togs that LPGA player Lexi Thompson often wears.
Many of the girls wore stylish knee socks and there were plenty of Masters Tournament caps, visors and shirts. One father toted a custom-made Little Mermaid junior tour bag – complete with bling accents – on his shoulder as he accompanied his daughter at the qualifier.
The first player to punch his ticket for a return trip to Augusta National was Ryan Nana Tanke, who won the Boys 7-9 competition by sweeping all three skills competitions for a total of 157 points. It was his third attempt at Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying and the second consecutive year he has advanced to the National Finals.
“I’m happy to go back,” said Tanke, 9, who calls Paris, France, home but spends part of the year in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Last year when I went to Augusta National, I watched the professional players practicing, and I will do that again.”
Miles Russell of nearby Jacksonville Beach, Fla., also earned a return trip to the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals with his victory in the Boys 10-11 division. He won his age division’s putting competition and finished second in chipping to secure a trip to Augusta National for the first time since the 2018 National Finals.
Russell credited putting for paving his way back to Augusta.
“I putted well today, but I didn’t expect to win it,” said Russell, 10, who has been playing golf for eight years. “I’m looking forward to going to Augusta National again and this time, I’m going to do better in putting.”
Elyse Meerdink, winner of the Girls 10-11 division, was able to do something her grandfather wasn’t able to accomplish more than 50 years ago during his amateur career.
Charles Barry Meerdink lost his chance to play the Masters Tournament when he was fell in match play at the U.S. Amateur in the 1960s to future PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman. The elder Meerdink went on to play on the PGA Tour in that decade, but it was young Elyse who made good on her trip to Augusta National in her fourth Drive, Chip and Putt appearance and second regional qualifier.
“I woke up this morning and said, ‘I can win this,’” said Meerdink, 10, of Tampa, Fla., who won the driving competition two years ago and again On Saturday. “I practiced for four hours every day. I just believed I could win.”
Morgan Rodriguez finished second in her age group at last year’s regional qualifier but returned this year with the goal of advancing to the National Finals. The seventh grader finished second in chipping and won the Girls 12-13 division by two points to earn her trip to Augusta National.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to go to an amazing course like Augusta National at such a young age and to be able to experience that,” said Rodriguez, 12, of Delray Beach, Fla. “This was one of my biggest dreams.”
Rodriguez, who is Latin-American, African-American and Jewish, believes it is important for other mixed-race juniors to look at her and to see possibility.
“It will be amazing to have younger girls see me on TV and to think, ‘I can do that,’” said Rodriguez, who has already been inducted into the African-American Golf Hall of Fame as a junior.
Diversity and inclusion are, in fact, a goal for the entire Drive, Chip and Putt program, said Steve McMillen, executive director of the North Florida PGA.
“The program promotes inclusion because it’s for girls and boys of all backgrounds and kids from both public and private courses,” McMillen said.
One extremely happy face in the afternoon competition was that of sixth grader Gavin Hutchinson of Myrtle Beach, S.C., who finished second in both driving and putting to win the Boys 12-13 age group.
“In the past, I lost because I hit my drives out of the grid,” said Hutchinson, 11, who has competed in five Drive, Chip and Putt events, but has never advanced out of local qualifying until this year.
“Getting all three of my drives in the grid today is such a confidence booster for me heading into the national championship,” he added.
And while Hutchinson sported an Augusta National visor and shirt, the left-handed player shrugged when asked about his gnarly-toothed shark-print shorts.
“I just wanted to be stylish,” he said, still smiling.
Other age group winners in Saturday’s regional included Reese McMillan of Jupiter, Fla., in the Girls 7-9 division; Analiese Raath of Lakeland, Fla., in the Girls 14-15 division; and Elijah Zamarron of Sunrise, Fla., in the Boys 14-15 division.