Drive, Chip & Putt contest builds interest in third year
WOODBURN — Poised and confident, 9-year-old Jayla Kucy three times chipped her pink golf ball from 15 yards close enough to a tough pin position on a sloping green to score respectably in that discipline, and then moved to the putting venue, where her first putt, from 6 feet, found nothing but the bottom of the cup.
Her next putt, from 15 feet, came close, and her 30-footer caught the lip but didn’t go down. Then it was off to the driving range, where she got all three drives in the designated fairway, at distances of 130 yards, twice, and 120.
The little girl in pink was competing earlier this month in a local qualifying tournament for the national Drive, Chip & Putt contest, a fun and high-energy affair — 168 kids signed up, compared with about 70 a year ago — at the Oregon Golf Association Golf Course here.
The local qualifiers — one is scheduled July 25 at Emerald Valley Golf & Resort in Creswell — are the first step in a three-stage process, followed by sub-regionals and regionals, that leads to the national championships at Augusta National Country Club the Sunday before the Masters.
Kucy, from Camrose, Alberta, knows what that experience is like — she reached the national finals last year, finishing tied for eighth.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It felt like I was one of the professionals to go there.”
As her father, Joe, looked on, Kucy said that she’s had a golf club in her hands since she was 2 or 3, and has shot 91 for 18 holes. Not all the contestants, ranging in age from 7 through 15, at the OGA course qualifier were that experienced, though the field did include two other golfers who reached Augusta National last year, and another who reached in 2013.
The purpose of the competition is to introduce young players to the sport, and the skills required.
“These are probably the three most important skills in golf,” said John Grothe, head professional at the OGA course. “You have to drive it in the fairway in order to score. You have to make putts, in order to score. And if you happen to miss a green, you have to get it up and down.
“Those are all critical elements of the game.”
Modeled after the NFL’s long-running Punt, Pass & Kick contest, the national Drive, Chip & Putt contest, in its third year, is a joint venture of the PGA of America, the U.S. Golf Association and Augusta National.
The contest is open to boys and girls ages 7 through 15, and there is no entry fee, though preregistration is required. Grouped by gender, boys and girls compete in four age-group categories: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15.
In the local, sub-regional and regional qualifying rounds, each competitor gets three drives, three chips from 10 to 15 yards and three putts, one each from 6, 15 and 30 feet.
Points are awarded for each shot, with drives earning points based on distance — though the shot must land in a 40-yards-wide fairway to be eligible — and chips and putts scored based on closeness to the center of the hole. A maximum of 25 points are awarded for each shot.
In local qualifying in Oregon, the top three overall point-winners in each age group — a total of 12 boys and 12 girls — advance to sub-regional qualifying at Meriwether National Golf Club in Hillsboro on Aug. 10. There, the top two point winners in each age group advance to the regional championships, Sept. 12, at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, Wash., for a chance to earn a spot in the national finals, scheduled at Augusta National on April 3, 2016.
Emerald Valley assistant pro Colin Inglis is a huge fan of the concept as a way to introduce kids to golf.
“Obviously, they’re the future of the game,” Inglis said. “At most places, junior golf is kind of on the back burner. I think this kind of brings it to the front.”
Last year, the Emerald Valley local qualifier attracted about 50 competitors; Inglis said he hopes the field will double in size this year, and offers the following tips for youngsters preparing for the event:
Chipping tends to be the most volatile of the disciplines, with minimal points awarded unless a shot winds up at least eight feet from the hole, so practice chipping into a hula-hoop sized target. As Grothe said, “It does seem that the winners tend to score more points in the chipping area.”
Although a putt (and chip) that is holed earns the maximum points, 25, Inglis urges golfers to practice speed control. “Kids think they have to make them all,” he said. “They really don’t; they just have to lag it down there.”
Using a driver is not required in the driving competition, where getting three scoring shots is crucial, even at the expense of some distance.
With chipping and putting comprising two-thirds of the competition, the lesson for players is “how pivotal the short game is in the game of golf,” Inglis said. In fact, ties are broken by the golfers’ putting scores, and that proved to be crucial for Jayla Kucy at the OGA course qualifier. Competing in the girls 10-11 category (because of where her birthdate falls), Kucy tied for third with 93 points — and, based on her superior putting score, got the final berth in sub-regionals, the next step on the road to Augusta National.