A trip to play golf at Augusta National is a pipe dream for most amateur golfers. But for junior golfers, there is a path to play at the home of the Masters through the Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
For juniors in the desert and throughout Southern California, the first step in that journey came last Sunday in a local qualifying event for the Drive, Chip and Putt held at The Golf Center in Palm Desert, the home of The First Tee of the Coachella Valley junior golf program.
This was the first time in recent memory that a local qualifier for the national event has been held in the desert.
“I went on the internet and looked up Drive, Chip and Putt and looked up how we could become a site,” said Teal Guion, executive director of the desert’s First Tee Chapter. “I applied during the pandemic and didn’t hear anything back. And then magically we were on the schedule.”
Nearly 100 junior golfers signed up for the event from throughout Southern California, though fewer than that actually competed in the event. Known for its finals televised from Augusta National the Sunday before the Masters each April, the competition consists of three tests of skills: driving both for distance and accuracy as well as proximity of chipping and putting accuracy from three distances of six feet, 15 feet and 30 feet. Participants score points in each category, with the golfers with the most points in all three categories advancing to sub-regional play.
Guion said the appeal from the First Tee to host the event was obvious.
“It’s a community event. This is a youth-friendly facility, a fan-friendly facility,” Guion said. “And this is an amazing event that just continues youth development and youth golf and that’s what we are all about.”
Desert juniors in recent years haven’t had a local qualifier in the Coachella Valley and often had to drive two hours or more to enter a qualifier.
“I thought it was really cool to play in the Drive, Chip and Putt,” said 14-year-old Austin Woods, who just finished eighth grade at Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert. “I tried it one time when I was 10, and I thought it would be cool to try it again and see if I can actually go to it this year.”
Qualifiers move to second stage in Southern California
Woods performed well Sunday but wasn’t one of the players to advance to sub-regional play. Liam Hartling of Redlands, Alez Zuniga of Indio and Joseph Gutierrez of Whitter advanced, with Kent Karlstrom of Rancho Mirage and Kai Hirayama of Arcadia earning alternate status.
Anthony Leone, player development director of the Southern California PGA, who oversaw the competition, said players from outside the Coachella Valley came to the desert event simply because there were openings in the field.
Drive, Chip and Putt holds only nine local qualifiers from Oxnard to San Diego, offering few chances for the thousands of Southern California juniors who might want a chance to advance to the Augusta National event.
“I had a lot of families tell that to me, families of First Tee participants who said gosh, it was so far away and it’s only for 20 or 30 minutes,” Guion said. “So they always had to weigh out the decision if they wanted to put all of that energy into driving so far away. It just seemed silly that our kids in the Coachella Valley wouldn’t have the opportunity in their backyard.”
Woods said because the event was in the desert, he was able to do some work on his game before he tried to qualify.
“I went to the range at my home course (Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells) for like 30 minutes to work on all of it, the drive, the chip and the putt,” Woods said. “And then I used the speed stick to warm up for my drives, get a little loose for that.”
Woods said he annually watches the Drive, Chip and Putt on Golf Channel, an event that has become an important part of the buildup to the Masters. The Drive, Chip and Putt finals feature not only members of Augusta National like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but professional players such as two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson.
Players who advance out of local qualifying move to sub-regionals at either Coto de Caza Golf and Racquet Club in Orange County or the Navy Course in Cypress. Regional play will be at the TPC Scottsdale in Arizona, with the nationals again at Augusta National.