Until this spring, junior golfers could only dream of competing on the hallowed turf of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, site of the fabled Masters Tournament.
For 11-year-old Tia Walker of Clearwater, the dream became reality when she made the finals of the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, which was held the week before the 2014 Masters at Augusta National.
Walker, a student at Plato Academy in Palm Harbor, took the first step toward golf’s sacred ground last summer at The Downs Golf Practice Facility at Tampa Bay Downs by winning a local qualifying event in the Girls 10-11 age group.
On Saturday, June 14, 200 youngsters will flock to the golf center at Tampa Bay Downs to see if they can follow in Walker’s footsteps.
The Downs Golf Practice Facility has again been chosen as one of 256 local qualifying sites for the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, a nationwide competition created by the Masters Tournament Foundation, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America to increase participation among youngsters. The qualifying event will begin at 8 a.m. and is open to the public free of charge.
According to The Downs Golf Practice Facility Manager Jon Johnson, 35 boys and 15 girls in each of four age divisions will vie here for the chance to be one of 80 junior golfers to tee it up at the home of the Masters next April 5, the Sunday before the final round of the 2015 season’s first major championship.
Competition will be held for girls and boys in the 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15 age divisions. The top two overall point earners in local qualifying in each division will advance.
“It’s exciting to be a host site for the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship for the second year, and we encourage spectators to join us and watch high-quality golf,” said Johnson, a past President of the West Central Chapter of the North Florida PGA and a former Augusta National assistant professional.
“Through our involvement, we are continuing our support of junior golf by exposing more kids to the game and giving them an opportunity to earn their way to Augusta National.”
After winning the local qualifying event last year, Walker also captured the regional final at Reunion Resort near Orlando to advance to Augusta National, where she finished eighth in the Girls 10-11 final.
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, showed up for the trophy presentation at Augusta wearing his green jacket. Other former Masters champions to attend the final in April included Fred Couples, Fuzzy Zoeller and this year’s winner, Bubba Watson, who made an unscheduled appearance after watching the first part of the event on TV in his Augusta hotel room.
More than 17,000 children in 19 states and the District of Columbia signed up for the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. Organizers have expanded the event to include all 50 states with the hope of attracting 50,000 participants.
Another level of qualifying has also been added. Winners from The Downs Golf Practice Facility will advance to the subregional on Aug. 16 at Reunion Resort, with the regional final Sept. 15 at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga.
“The Tampa Bay area is a hotbed for junior golf talent, and the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is an awesome way to introduce kids to the excitement and tradition of the sport,” Johnson said.