AUGUSTA, Ga. - Here is a new take on the old idea that the Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday. In a way, the Masters now begins the previous Sunday, when the pros get pumped just to watch kids compete in the Drive, Chip and Putt contest.
"It's inspiring," said defending Masters champion Bubba Watson, who had a 10-minute conversation Sunday with Long Island teenager Jennifer Rosenberg after she tied for first in her age group. "Sometimes in our job, even playing golf for a living, it gets stale, it gets boring. And so for me, it's inspiring."
Watson was so enthused about the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt event last year that, as he watched it on TV, he insisted that his wife drop him off at the course so he could see it in person. This year, wearing his green jacket, he handed out trophies -- and advice.
"He told me you've got to keep the positive waves going. He was a genuine guy, really nice," said Rosenberg of Laurel Hollow, who shared her experience with Watson in a private conversation under the fabled oak tree near the clubhouse. She told him about her rough start in the driving portion, hitting two out of bounds and finishing last in the Girls 14-15 group, then recovering to win the chipping and putting phases. Watson enjoyed hearing it and was impressed.
The whole nationwide Drive, Chip and Putt program has been "a smashing success," Masters chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday. The initiative, organized jointly by the Masters, PGA of America and U.S. Golf Association, drew 30,000 entries last year for the final held this past Sunday. Local qualifiers for the 2016 trip to Augusta will be at Harbor Links, Colonial Springs and Sunken Meadow.
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, said, "I was really blown away last year when I came here and saw how the whole event was running, how good it is for the game of golf."
Watson said it reminded him of a contest that he entered when he was 8: "We got to go to Disney World if we won it. That was our Augusta National." He made it clear that Augusta is a higher prize.
Payne, in his annual state of the Masters news conference, urged young people to register at drivechipandputt.com. That was just what Rosenberg did after watching the 2014 final. That ultimately led her to the regional final at Bethpage last August and then a seat at the finalists' dinner here this past Saturday night. Payne told the young golfers that their presence signaled "how much your parents love you" because of the sacrifices they had made. "I know you don't believe it, but your parents are smarter than you are," he told the group.
"Billy Payne made me cry," Jennifer's mother, Robin, said.
Sunday was even more emotional. Just the sight of Augusta National was awe inspiring. "Words can't describe it. There's not a blade of grass out of place. The greens are like putting on glass," said Jennifer, a sophomore at Cold Spring Harbor.
Standing in last place after her drives went out of bounds, she did not give up. "I said, 'What do I have to lose?'" she said. In front of a national TV audience on Golf Channel, she beat the field in chipping and putting. Those put her in a tie with Alexandra Swayne of Maineville, Ohio. The trophy was decided with a one-stroke "putt-off" to the Sunday hole location on Augusta's 18th green.
Rosenberg putted first, was aggressive and put it 3 feet past the cup. Swayne won when her putt hit the back of the hole, popped out and stopped inches away.
Still, it had been a memorable comeback for the Long Islander. "As far as I'm concerned," her mother said, "she won."
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