On an April Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club, Leo Cheng walked the 18th green, lined up a 20-foot putt and found the hole. A green jacket was waiting for the 11-year-old.
So began the report on the finals of the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, and 93 youngsters with dreams of earning that headline will compete in this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt sub-regional on Saturday at Fort Jackson Golf Club.
Will there be another Leo Cheng among the competitors at Fort Jackson? Will there be another Lucy Li, who won her 10-11 age group at Augusta and qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open on the way to captivating Pinehurst fans with her game and infectious smile?
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Mike Casto, FJGC’s general manager and director of golf. “(The club) has been honored to host the South Carolina Open, the South Carolina Junior Championship and Play Golf America in recent years, and having the Drive, Chip and Putt competition will be another special day for us.”
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The Drive, Chip and Putt program is an effort to grow the game, sponsored jointly by the Masters Tournament Foundation, the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America. Competition comes in four age groups – 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15 – for both boys and girls with points accumulated on the basis of length on drives and distance to the hole on chips and putts.
Saturday’s competition begins at noon. Admission is free.
“This is a wonderful program, and we had a wonderful response with full fields (maximum of 200) at most sites,” Ron Schmid, executive director of the Carolinas PGA Section, said. “The day at Fort Jackson will be the equivalent of the quarterfinals in a tournament.”
The players who advanced to Fort Jackson placed in the top three of their age groups at four qualifying sites in South Carolina – Carolina Country Club in Spartanburg, River Hills Golf and Country Club in Little River, Westcott Golf Club in Summerville and Callawassie Island Club in Okatie. Among those in the 10-11 age group will be Mary Hardwick of Rock Hill, who finished sixth at Augusta National in the 7-9 group last year.
The top two in each age group advance to the regional finals in Virginia. The winners there advance to the finals at Augusta on the Sunday before the Masters begins.
“We chose the sites on the quality of the facilities, the PGA professional and his staff, a large enough (300 yards by 40 yards) practice range for the driving competition, places to warm up and the volunteer base,” Schmid said. “It’s a big undertaking for the club, and we’re pleased how well the clubs received the program.”
Because superintendent Jeff Connell and his staff keeps the courses in prime condition, Casto said the Fort Jackson club did not need to do much to accommodate the Drive, Chip and Putt players.
“We needed to get the word out that the range and practice green would be closed for a few hours, secure volunteers and will need to mark off the grid on our driving range,” he said. “Ron and his staff will select up the hole locations (for the chip and putt) on our practice green.
“(The Carolinas Section) asked if we would be interested in hosting the event, and of course we were. We checked with (the club’s) golf council and went up the chain of command to get their blessings.”
Schmid said his office spread the Carolinas’ qualifying sites around the two states based on geography.
“One of the great things about the program is the youngsters did not have to spend a penny to enter,” he said. “The youngsters will have a experience no matter how they score, and it will be the something those who advance will never forget. We’re glad to be associated with it.”