JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The first of 11 regional qualifiers for the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship was contested on Monday, Aug. 5, at Atlanta Athletic Club. With eight spots in the national finals at Augusta National Golf Club on the line, 160 juniors from nine states, all of whom advanced through local qualifying, came to the Georgia regional final in hopes of claiming a spot in the national championship.
This golf development initiative created by the Masters Tournament Foundation, the United States Golf Association and The PGA of America was announced during the 2013 Masters, with the goal of attracting more young people to the game.
The top two qualifiers in each age/gender bracket of local qualifying, which included 110 sites, advanced to regional qualifiers.
From each of the regional qualifiers – which are being conducted throughout August – the top finisher in each age/gender bracket earns an invitation to the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. A total of 88 boys and girls ages 7-15, will square off at Augusta National on the Sunday prior to the 2014 Masters Tournament.
The first player to qualify for the Drive, Putt and Chip final championship was Molly Hardwick of Rock Hill, S.C. After collecting four points in the drive competition, Hardwick holed out her second chip to add 25 points to her card. She tallied 15 more points in the chipping portion and polished off the victory with 20 points in the putting skills challenge.
“I knew I had won because my dad told me and I saw it on the scoreboard,” Hardwick said. “We’ve watched the Masters but we’ve never been to Augusta..”
Moments after Hardwick’s victory, Edward Stephens Jr. became the early high scorer with 115 points. The Atlanta native closed with a tidy 45 points in putting en route to winning the division by 24 points.
“My best shot out there today was making the 30-footer during the putting competition,” said Stephens, who won the Boys 7-9 local qualifier at Doublegate Country Club in Albany, Ga. .”
Keira Jones of Milton, Ga., captured the third berth at Augusta National after she drove, chipped and putted her way to into the national final. After carding 30 points in driving and 40 points in the chipping portion, Jones holed out a 6-foot putt en route to 45 points.
In the Boys 10-11 division, Charles Warren of Huntsville, Ala., won the chipping portion with 40 points to total 87 points on the day for a one-point win. Warren’s emotions took over as he realized his dream trip to Augusta National had become a reality.
“I’m very excited. I went to Augusta for the first time this year to watch the pros,” said Warren as he wiped away tears. “I got all of my chips really close and this tournament has been the most fun so far.”
Ashley Gilliam of Manchester, Tenn., claimed the Girls 12-13 spot after recording 120 points. Gilliam won by 13 points and posted the top score in chipping for her division at 45 points.
Said Gilliam, who earned a spot in the regional final by finishing second at The Georgia Trail local qualifier in Duluth, Ga., “My season has been really good so far, but I’m going to work on my putting and driving.”
It was a close race in the Boys 12-13 division with Bailey Smith of Buckhead, Ga., topping the division by one point at 123. Smith started the competition with 42 points in driving and 30 points in chipping, but rallied behind 51 points in the putting portion to surge to victory.
Rheagan Hall of Charleston, Tenn., carded the highest total of the day at 146 points and won the Girls 14-15 division by 33 points.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, but my season has been really good so far,” Hall said. “Putting is one of my strengths, but I’ll have to get the speed of the greens down at Augusta.”
During the driving portion of the competition, Hall’s best stroke traveled 223 yards for a total of 17 points.
Capping off the regional qualifier, Henry Augenstein of Columbia, S.C., grabbed the last spot in the national finals. He started strong by recording 59 points with drives of 257, 255 and 249 yards. He followed that with 45 points in putting and went into the chipping portion knowing that he needed to pick up at least 24 points to take the title. He earned 25 points to come home with a 129 total.
“It was nerve-racking,” Augenstein said. “I need to focus on my putting, especially the 6-foot putt. I’m very excited to play at Augusta.”
Each division at the regional qualifier concluded with acts of sportsmanship. Whether it was fist pumps, hugs or nods of congratulations, the junior golfers showed that golf embodies etiquette and poise at every age.
Abby Liebenthal is the manager of communications at the American Junior Golf Association in Alpharetta, Ga.