AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Eight junior golfers – four boys and four girls – were crowned champions at the third-annual Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals held Sunday, April 3, at Augusta National Golf Club and broadcast live on Golf Channel.
Conducted in partnership between the Masters Tournament, the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association (USGA), the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a free, nationwide youth golf development program open to boys and girls, ages 7-15, in four age categories.
Tens of thousands of youngsters had the opportunity to qualify for the event, which began with more than 250 local qualifiers at courses across all 50 states last summer. From there, the top finishers advanced through 50 subregionals to one of 10 regional qualifiers that included several USGA Championship and PGA Championship sites. Finally, the 80 winners across the four age divisions earned a trip to Augusta National to participate in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on the eve of the 2016 Masters Tournament.
“What a wonderful day for these golf fans out here to get to watch these great kids,” said Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament. “For us, and I know for our partners at the USGA and PGA of America, it’s about inspiring other kids to become involved in golf. Many of these kids are here today because they saw the previous competitions on television. It gives us great joy and happiness, and it’s just been a wonderful day here at Augusta National.”
The four female champions were: Emerson Blair, 9, of West Point, Miss. (ages 7-9); Alexa Pano, 11, of Lake Worth, Fla. (ages 10-11); Kayla Sam, 13, of Anaheim Hills, Calif. (ages 12-13); and Alyssa Montgomery, 15, of Knoxville, Tenn. (ages 14-15).
The four male champions were: Stephen Robert Hernandez, 9, of Houston (ages 7-9); Christian Kim, 11, of Vernon Hills, Ill. (ages 10-11); Ty Griggs, 13, of Manteca, Calif. (ages 12-13); and Michael Thorbjornsen, 14, of Wellesley, Mass. (ages 14-15).
“Our PGA professionals from around the country are just delighted to be able to introduce the game to tens of thousands of youngsters from across the country,” said Derek Sprague, President of the PGA of America. “This initiative is something that all of our PGA professionals, along with the USGA
and Augusta National, really embrace. We’re delighted to be a part of it, and to really deliver the game to these kids.”
“Every year, the volume of students competing continues to grow,” USGA President Diana Murphy remarked. “The excitement is phenomenal. I think this is one of the most important days for golf in our country, and we’re just beginning. These children are an inspiration for all of us, and if they each go home and introduce this game to just one more person, we’ll see a continued growth of Drive, Chip and Putt. Perhaps we’ll see one of these finalists as a champion of the U.S. Open or U.S. Women’s Open someday.”
Points were awarded in each individual skill category (Drive, Chip and Putt), with the winner receiving 10 points, second nine points, third eight points, etc. The player with the most points following all three competitions was declared the overall winner of the age group.
In the drive portion, the better of two scores was used to determine the score. Each golfer then took two chips with the cumulative distance from the hole totaled to determine the score. Players then moved to Augusta National’s 18th green where they had two putts – from 15 and 30 feet – with the cumulative distance from the hole totaled to determine the score.
Here are individual age-group summaries:
In fourth place after driving and chipping, Blair’s stellar performance on the 18th green was enough to propel her to victory. Avery Zweig, of Dallas, won both the drive and chip categories, but Blair’s comeback performance put her a half-point ahead of second-place finisher Mary Miller of Skidaway Island, Ga.
Asked about her mindset heading into putting, Blair said: “I wanted to make the two putts and win. [I was] pretty confident. It feels really good, and I’m glad that I won. I’m really happy.”
One of seven finalists in the program’s history to make a return trip to Augusta National, Pano was eager for another chance to claim victory after placing third in the inaugural 2014 competition. Pano won the drive category and placed second in chipping.
“I’m literally so excited. It’s haunted me hitting those two drives out of bounds [in 2014], so just to get that one in-bounds made the whole day for me. I was so excited two years ago just to be here, and I’m more excited now to be able to relax and just play.”
The only one in her age group to hit two drives over 200 yards, Sam won that category handily and held on to her lead to win the group with 26 points, just one more than Elle Fox of Copperas Cove, Texas, who won the chip category. She headed into the putting category with a razor-thin lead, and needing a second putt inside six inches, she erased any doubt by draining the putt in a clutch performance.
“[I just wanted] to try to get as close as I could,” Sam said. “I thought I got pretty close to being the winner, but I didn’t think I was going to actually win.” Asked about the experience, Sam said: “It means everything. I’ve had a really good time, and a really good experience. All of these players are really good, and the pressure has kind of helped me.”
Montgomery tied for third chipping and finished second driving, but her performance on the 18th green was the highlight of the day. She holed the 15-foot putt, making her the first finalist of the day to drain one, and held on to win the putting competition by less than an inch.
Asked to describe the emotions she felt winning at Augusta, Montgomery had only one word: “Indescribable. It’s the best thing ever. You get all those nerves going, but you’ve got to try to put it out of your mind. [After draining the first putt] I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got this, I’ve just got to roll the next one up next to the hole.’”
Stephen Robert Hernandez won both the driving and chipping contests. After starting the day with a 187-yard drive, he gave the first of what would become his signature fist pumps. The last to putt, he gestured to the crowd to show his appreciation after clinching the overall win.
Hernandez, who listens to the “Rocky” theme song before each competition, was a little overcome with emotion when asked to describe what it felt like to win. “I don’t know! It’s coming from mystical reasons – I don’t know what happened. This is a dream.”
Kim didn’t win any of the individual competitions, but a pair of nine-point showings in the driving and chipping categories was enough to help him earn 26 points and edge out Nolan Haynes of Barberton, Ohio, by just one point. Needing to come within 3’10” on his final putt, Kim came just inside 3’7” in a nail-biter to win it all.
“I was reading the other kids’ putts to see if [the break] was uphill or downhill. I’ve been practicing putting a lot, so I’ve improved a lot,” Kim said. “It’s been awesome. I’m really grateful for everything my family has done and to God for helping me win.”
Griggs began the day with a dominant performance in the drive category, winning with a 248-yard drive – more than 30 yards farther than his closest competition. Needing his second putt to come within nine inches to win his age group, Griggs holed it to clinch the win. He finished with 28 points, just one more than Skyler Fox of Beaver Falls, Penn., who won both the chip and putt categories.
“I didn’t even know how close [I needed to putt to win], I just wanted to put it in the hole, that’s all I cared about, because I like to celebrate afterwards. I just wanted to make it so I could do that,” Griggs said. “Words can’t really explain how happy I am to actually come here and win. The first year that I tried I didn’t really make it that far, but this year I was a lot more dedicated and put a lot more work in and I’m definitely happy.”
A strong second-place driving finish and a win in the chip category propelled Thorbjornsen to victory. Tied for the lead after the chip category, he finished with 23 points, just ahead of a three-way tie for second place by finalists Daniel Uranga (Wilder, Id.), Chase Venn (Columbia, Mo.) and Marco Punzo (Prosper, Texas) at 22 points.
“This was great, especially at Augusta National. It’s definitely my favorite course of all time, and coming here was such a great experience,” Thorbjornsen said. “I can’t believe what’s happening right now. Everything has been great – just walking around here, looking at all the holes, has been awesome. Chipping, putting, and especially being here and putting on the 18th green, is amazing.”
About the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship
A joint initiative founded in 2013 by the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association and the PGA of America, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a free, nationwide junior golf development competition aimed at growing the game by focusing on the three fundamental skills employed in golf. By tapping the creative and competitive spirit of girls and boys ages 7-15, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship provides aspiring junior golfers an opportunity to play with their peers in qualifiers around the country. Participants who advance through local, subregional and regional qualifying in each age/gender category earn a place in the National Finals, which is conducted at Augusta National Golf Club the Sunday before the Masters Tournament and is broadcast live by Golf Channel. For more information about the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, visit www.DriveChipandPutt.com.
About the United States Golf Association
The USGA conducts the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Open, as well as 10 national amateur championships, two state team championships and international matches, attracting players and fans from more than 160 countries. Together with The R&A, the USGA governs the game worldwide, jointly administering the Rules of Golf, Rules of Amateur Status, equipment standards and World Amateur Golf Rankings. The USGA’s reach is global with a working jurisdiction in the United States, its territories and Mexico, serving more than 25 million golfers and actively engaging 150 golf associations.
The USGA is one of the world’s foremost authorities on research, development and support of sustainable golf course management practices. It serves as a primary steward for the game’s history and invests in the development of the game through the delivery of its services and its ongoing “For the Good of the Game” grants program. Additionally, the USGA’s Course Rating and Handicap systems are used on six continents in more than 50 countries. For more information about the USGA, visit www.usga.org.
About the Masters Tournament
The Masters Tournament Foundation, inspired by the enduring philosophies of Masters Tournament founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, is committed to promoting golf’s domestic and international development through financial investment and active participation in initiatives aimed at preserving the traditions of the game and sharing its many virtues.
The Masters Tournament – since its very beginning – strives to provide added exposure to the game of golf and inspire interest in the sport worldwide. For more information about the Masters, visit www.masters.com.
About the PGA of America
Since its founding in 1916, the PGA of America has maintained a twofold mission: to establish and elevate the standards of the profession and grow interest and participation in the game of golf. The PGA of America delivers world-class championships while building the public’s interest in the game, the desire to play more golf, and ensures accessibility for everyone, everywhere. Celebrating its Centennial, the PGA represents the very best in golf. For more about the PGA of America, visit pga.org.