Growing the Game – Kids Rule at Augusta

    Created specifically to attract more children to golf, the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship was held at Augusta National last month, on the even of the 2014 Masters. Robin Barwick reports from Augusta

    PICTURES: Courtesy of Drive, Chip & Putt Championship

    Brunswick stew, cornmeal, cornbread, sweetcorn, sweet tea and hot peach cobbler,” was the detailed and nutritionally balanced – if slightly corn-biased –Champions’ Dinner menu from nine-year-old Kelly Xu from California, should she ever win the Masters. Kelly has in fact won at Augusta National, at the 2014 Drive, Chip & Putt Championship National Final, where she won the Girls’ 7-9 age group.

    The Sunday before Masters week starts is traditionally a day of serenity, the final day of calm before the gates of Augusta National are opened to the public on the Monday morning. But this year it was different, and far from calm. In fact it was a day of real energy and excitement, filled with the joy and promise of youth, as Augusta National staged the final of its inaugural, nationwide tournament for golfers aged between seven and 15.

    Four boys and four girls were crowned champions in their respective age groups, having accumulated the most points in tests of driving, chipping and putting, and to add to the tournament flavor of the event, in player biographies, each finalist was asked to state what they would serve in the Champions’ Dinner, if they were Masters champion.

    Eight-year-old Makaylee Cowan from Oklahoma kept it short and to the point: “Cheese dip,” she simply said.

    How about seven-year-old Andrew Petruzzelli from Dallas, who stipulated: “King salmon with lime juice, broccoli, salad and French bread, with chocolate chip cookies and sea salt gelato for dessert”. Some parental input with that one, you can bet.

    How do you think these selections compare to the following: “Caesar salad, followed by grilled chicken breast with green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese, served with cornbread, and for dessert; confetti cake with vanilla ice cream”? Slightly child-like? This is in fact not the choice of a young golfing prodigy, but what Bubba Watson served to the Masters champions last year, when he served as defending champion for the first time. Goodness knows what Watson, champion for the second time this year, will select for 2015. You can’t rule out waffles and maple syrup.

    In the region of 17,000 young golfers entered the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which began with a series of local qualifiers around the United States last summer. The top finishers then qualified for 11 regional qualifiers, with the country’s top 88 young players across four age groups earning the chance to compete in a skills test at Augusta National, and to meet some of this year’s Masters golfers while they were there. The final was also televised live on the Golf Channel.

    One of the tests put to the young golfers was to attempt the same 15-foot putt Adam Scott holed on 18 in the final round of the 2013 Masters, on his way to victory. Florida’s Bryson Bianco, by the way, aged 13, won the Boys 12-13 age group with a performance highlighted by a drive of 261 yards.

    Chairman’s report
    Zell Wilson competes in the Girls 9U division
    Zell Wilson competes in the Girls 9U division

    “It has often been said and written that every golfer’s dream is to compete upon – or even just see Augusta National – in person,” started Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, after the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship. “While these remarkable 88 young boys and girls earned that right this year, it is more important and more significant that hundreds of thousands of other kids saw how much fun they had, sat by their televisions, repeatedly telling their mums and dads that they could hit that chip even better and visualised themselves right here at Augusta next year. I think in doing so, they all began the process of falling in love with the game of golf.”

    After the success of the 2014 event, which was the result of collaboration between Augusta National, the PGA of America and the USGA, the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship is being entry to 50,000 young golfers across 250 local qualifying events this summer.

    At a golf club renowned for its privacy, secrecy and autocratic rule, the genial Payne – who was the driving force behind the inception of Drive, Chip & Putt – was moved by the success of the initiative, which resulted in such a rare and refreshing sight of seeing children in starring roles at Augusta National for the first time.

    “It was extraordinarily powerful,” said Payne. “On the Saturday night at the banquet preceding the Sunday competition, I knew there was something very special in these kids and their families, and the excitement and anticipation which they had for competing here. They responded wonderfully. When Ted Bishop [President of the PGA of America] and Tom O’Toole [President of the USGA] were giving their remarks, these little kids were following every word and they were being inspired by those words, just as we were being inspired by their presence.

    “We view the 2014 Drive, Chip & Putt Championship as a beginning, and we will try to get it better than it was this year, which is how we try to do things. At some time, perhaps, it would be time to see if it fits in internationally, and if we get to that point, we will look to all of our allies and friends to do that, principally the R&A.”

    Would the chance to play at Augusta National encourage more children and families to play more golf in the UK? An emphatic ‘yes’ is the answer.