Alexandra Gazzoli admits to being "a little nervous," and who wouldn't be?
An April Sunday at Augusta. A putt on the 18th green for all the marbles. Gallery on hand, and an international television audience.
That's no place for kids, except on this particular Sunday in April, when "Masters week" opens as it has the past four years, with the national finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition for kids ages 7 to 15.
"I'm a little nervous, but I'm excited to go," says Alexandra, a 12-year-old from Palm Coast with a very grown-up golf game.
She qualified for the national finals last October by winning a regional final at the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The Drive, Chip and Putt debuted in 2014 as a collaborative effort of the PGA of America, U.S. Golf Association and host Augusta National Golf Club.
The boys and girls divisions each has four age groups: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15. As the competition's name suggests, each young golfer gathers points through three drives, three chips and three putts -- one putt each from 6, 15 and 30 feet. Each division has 10 finalists and the event is televised live by The Golf Channel, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Adding to the dramatics, the contest ends with putting, and it's held on Augusta National's 18th green, where so many golfing heroics (and failures) have played out. That green is what has most of Alexandra Gazzoli's attention heading into Sunday. Of the keys to playing well at Augusta National, chief among them is the ability to thrive (or just survive) on the marble-like putting surfaces.
"I've been focusing most on the putting, because the greens are going to be very fast and I want to be prepared for that," she said. "I'm a little more nervous about the putting."
To prepare, she practices mostly downhill putts, "and if possible, downwind," she says. "I've also been watching the replay of last year's finals to try to determine if the putts will have a big break and to try to see the distance."
Alexandra, who first swung a golf club at 2, is most confident with her Ping driver in hand. At 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, her longer tee shots reach 235 yards. But she has an all-around game, as her current handicap index of 3.8 attests.
She does most of her playing and practicing at the Ocean Course at Hammock Beach Resort, where director of golf Brad Hauer marvels at her desire to keep improving -- "She clearly works harder than any member we have here at the club," he says.
Alexandra, a sixth-grader at Old Kings Elementary, is part of a golfing family. Both parents (Robert and Sheila) play, as do two older brothers (Christian, who's a freshman at FSU, and Blaine, a sophomore at Matanzas High). All of them, along with a grandfather, uncle and two cousins -- and swing coach Anne Cain from the World Golf Village in St. John's County -- are along for the trip.
"We're incredibly honored and excited," Sheila Gazzoli says. "We're so proud of her and her continued dedication to golf, and so grateful to be a part of this special experience."
The weekend itinerary includes a formal Saturday night dinner and tickets to Monday's first official practice round. But the marquee event is easily Sunday's finals, which hasn't just been a big hit with the kids and their families, but with golfers at the highest level.
Each year, several former Masters champs -- each in the iconic green coat that symbolize their status -- join the onlookers, offer encouragement and, later, serve as trophy presenters.
It all adds up to the experience of a young lifetime.
"I'm looking forward to meeting the pros, the practice round and competing in such an amazing setting," Alexandra says. "Augusta National is such a special place and I feel very fortunate to be able to go to and experience it. This will be a very special memory for our family."
This article is written by Ken Willis from Daytona Beach News - Journal, The and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.