Tee to Green: Kids at Augusta welcome sight
Last Sunday was quite a day for golf.
There was 19-year-old Lexi Thompson becoming the second youngest woman to a win a major championship with a display of power and precision at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
And how about Australia's Matt Jones at the PGA Tour's Shell Houston Open? First, he drains a 46-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that eventually put him in a playoff with Matt Kuchar. Then, moments later, he sinks an improbable 42-yard chip shot for his first PGA Tour win, earning him a spot in this week's Masters.
But for me, those two moments weren't the most important for golf last weekend, and it's not even close. The biggest happening, at least as it relates to the game's long-term health, took place on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National to kick off Masters week. With more than a handful of early-arriving PGA Tour players watching, 88 boys and girls ages 7-15 competed in the finals of the inaugural national Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
"Can you imagine being 10 years old and coming out here and putting on these greens," asked former Masters champion Fred Couples. "For us as players, it's pretty neat to be seeing them out here."
And, naturally, it was pretty neat for the kids to get high-fives from 20-year-old star Jordan Spieth or to have defending champion Adam Scott show up at the awards ceremony in his green jacket.
In a perfect touch by the organizers, the last of three putts the competitors tried to negotiate was the same 20-footer on No. 18 that Scott made to force a playoff with Angel Cabera last April.
That history wasn't lost on 11-year-old Leo Cheng, who calmly made his try on the way to being one of eight champions (four boys and girls age divisions).
"I just had a vision of Adam Scott making that putt," Cheng said.
From a distance -- with Spieth and other 20-something players making major inroads on the PGA Tour, and Thompson and 16-year-old phenom Lydia Ko having combining for six LPGA wins -- it looks like golf's future is bright.
But in reality, youth participation is down and the overall golf economy is struggling. This competition, which attracted 17,000 participants for qualifiers in 19 states, was a combined effort of the PGA Tour, U.S. Golf Association and Augusta National to help reverse those trends.
Two Berkshire juniors -- Max Shepardson and Collette Basiliere -- made it through the first qualifying round. Hopefully, they'll try again this summer and will be joined by many other Berkshire juniors. Qualifiers are set for all 50 states and organizers are dreaming of growing the field to some 50,000 participants.
Locally, head professionals have launched numerous programs and hosted many clinics in an effort to inspire more youth play, no easy task in an era where the competition for the time and money of kids and families is fierce. This month, and in some cases into May, many members of the Northeast New York PGA Section are offering free 30-minute junior lessons.
Junior golf was a big part of my youth, and I am thankful for that every time I tee it up. In addition to being a game for a lifetime, it provided me with so many life lessons. Golf teaches patience -- I'm still working on that one -- perseverence, playing by the rules, self-reliance, how to respect others and much more.
Those traits were all on display Sunday on the Golf Channel. The kids handled themselves beautifully whether finishing first or last. And they certainly appreciated the amazing opportunity to compete at Augusta National.
"I will definitely remember this experience," said smiling Kelly Xu, 9, who won the 7-9 girls age group. "To me, it's the most special course in the world. I feel like all my hard work has really paid off, and it feels really good."
While one of the participants Sunday could some day wear the green jacket, that isn't the focus of the club, the PGA of America and the USGA.
"We'll measure success not by what they do on the golf course, but by how many kids they bring to golf," said Masters Chairman Billy Payne, who called the welcome dinner on Saturday night "unbelievably powerful and emotionally exciting."
As was last Sunday's competition.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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