April 3, 2016

What is it that makes the Drive, Chip and Putt work so well? Just about everything, actually

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Just like its world famous big brother, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is both a television show and celebratory garden party. Except, given the demographic of the participants, more like the coolest backyard birthday party. Ever.

Charles Laberge/Augusta National

Girls 10-11 age group competitor Nicole Criscone reacts with her chaperone and dad Craig Criscone after she was congratulated by Masters champion Bubba Watson during the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, April 3, 2016.

Like all things Augusta National, the genius of the “DCP” is in the little details you won’t see on television. And that’s just fine. Just as CBS does with the Masters, let Golf Channel send out the pretty pictures and tell the often amazing stories of the participants aged 7 to 15. Then save the little stuff for those lucky enough to get on the immaculate grounds. Because in a strange way, the experience for the kids, their families and those inspired by the skill on display has proven to be something that can truly only be appreciated in person.

The third rendition of this joint-operation between Augusta National, the USGA and PGA of America continues to be run with military precision, except the sergeants here run corporations and have world leaders on speed dial. They wear green jackets and give reassuring high five no matter poorly you drive, chip and putt.

“You see the volunteers in green jackets showing up and you know it’s something pretty special,” said Bubba Watson, who took in some of the proceedings at the 18th green and has shown up every year to give out trophies to the Boys 12-13 division.

But here’s the crazy part: through three years the kids haven’t needed a pat on the back. Even with very few repeat DCP participants due to the difficulty of just being one of the 80 finalists, skill has been the standout attribute of this event in spite of the pressures that should be induced by the grandest stage in golf.

Charles Laberge/Augusta National

Owen Bright, in the Boys 10-11 age group, chips during the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, April 3, 2016.

When the DCP’s took their two long drive attempts on the Masters’ slightly uphill practice area, a stiff, cold headwind made the already daunting task downright mean. Yet Bach Ngo, the eventual Boys 10-11 winner, patiently waited for the green light from a supervising PGA pro, With the red light on and a gallery of a thousand—oh, and that eery silence—Ngo used his fundamentally perfect swing to drive his first ball 193 and his second ball 212.

“That was all carry, too,” a spectator noted, acknowledging the tough morning conditions and lack of roll. Ngo is a classic DCP story, learning the game tagging along with a dad who admitted he had to be dragged into the game by his buddies. From Frederick, Maryland, Ngo got his picture taken with Bubba Watson and cooly suggested the whole thing was just how he thought it would go, only better.

“He’s actually just very shy,” dad Tung said of his sixth-grander son who loves Maroon 5, the Minions and plans to serve hibachi at his Champions Dinner some day.

Maybe never having seen the Drive, Chip and Putt or a single shot of The Masters helped Kayla Sam sink a 15-footer on 18 to win the Girls 12-13. The roar—as much an outpouring of joyous astonishment —was barely noticed by Sam, who said she “couldn’t hear because there was so much going through her head.” The 7th grader from Yorba Linda admitted that the short game was her weakest skill, but now she’s got a big make on Augusta’s 18th green that can never be taken away.

Another gem of an 18th hole story: Alyssa Montgomery needed her putt to get within 3 feet, 4 inches to win the Girls 14-15. The electric scoreboard positioned next to the green solely for the DCP posts what players need to do to win their division. Montgomery knew where she stood, thought she hit her putt too hard, and began to weep at the missed opportunity. She was 3 feet, 3 inches and won. Bring on the tears of joy for the 15-year-old 9th grader from Knoxville.

As the winners receive trophies and tell their stories to the press under Augusta National’s Big Oak, other DCP traditions have begun to develop. There is the legendary Gary Player giving out trophies to Girls 12-13, reminding them about the less fortunate and declaring that 99% of the world eats “poison.” That’s two years in a row for Player’s childhood obesity views, not that the kids care. Shoot, the winners already have their names engraved on the hardware. Only at Augusta National could they work that fast.

The Big Oak and its clubhouse vicinity also gathers leaders from golf’s governing bodies regaling in a day that culminates months of planning, execution and dedication by PGA professionals and the USGA’s partnering state and regional golf associations.

“We’re really happy to see we’re building off of its overall momentum and beginning to hear stories of kids seeing the event on TV and getting inspired to play,” said PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua.

One of those kids was Ty Griggs, who watched the DCP last year after missing for a second time and vowed to make it to Augusta National in 2016. He’s a distant, distant relative of 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet and took home the Junior World title for his age division last summer.

Griggs got to meet Bubba, one of his favorites, and One Direction’s Niall Horan, who seemed to strike a little less enthusiastic chord with the 13-year-old. “The girls at my school love him.”

Attention ladies in the 8th grade class at Neil Hafley Elementary School: as Horan was exiting the Big Oak area for the locker room, he yelled out and waved to Griggs with one more “well done” on winning the Boys 12-13 division. Just the day before at the DCP’s practice day, Horan, Justin Timberlake and Justin Rose made an impromptu visit to say hi to the kids. Griggs asked Timberlake questions but seemed most jazzed to have met Rose.

The only bummer for Griggs? His winning drive went a mere 248 yards instead of the 280ish distances he was driving during warm-ups in a helping crosswind. But wise well beyond his years, Griggs captured the essence of why everyone present at Augusta National feels so good about the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.

“They don't act like they’re doing you a favor,” he said. “They treat you like you’re meant to be here.”