AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – The biggest thrill of his life was making a 20-foot putt across the 18th green at Augusta National, and moments later he was wearing a green jacket.
It could have been a replay from last year at the Masters, except the big moment wasn’t for Adam Scott.
On this Sunday at Augusta National, the endless smile belonged to 11-year-old Leo Cheng of Northridge, Calif. He was among eight winners from different age groups at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt contest.
“I just had a vision of Adam Scott making that putt,” said Cheng, who won the boys’ 10-11 division.
The final shot in the skills challenge was a putt from the same spot where Scott made birdie last year in the Masters, which he won in a playoff.
Cheng and other seven kids didn’t win a green jacket. Cheng’s parents bought him a dark green sports coat to wear, win or lose, for making it to the finals of the skills challenge sponsored by Augusta National, the USGA and the PGA of America.
To make Cheng’s day even more memorable, Scott showed up at the trophy presentation wearing the real green jacket.
“It’s amazing to see so many people out there and the kids having a fun time,” Scott said.
This was a Sunday unlike any other at Augusta National.
Natalie Pietromonaco of Auburn, Calif., was on one side of the practice green standing over a 6-foot putt as Fred Couples watched from the other side.
Sunday typically is quiet at the home of the Masters as players arrive to start preparing for the first major of the year. Most of them couldn’t take their eyes off the group of 11 finalists, boys and girls, from each age division as they made their way from the practice range (driving and chipping) to the practice green, and then the final putt on the 18th hole.
“Can you imagine being 10 years old and to come here and putt on these greens?” Couples said. “For us as players, it’s pretty neat to see them out here.”
Golf Channel broadcast the event live. Parents watched nervously. The kids exchanged high-fives. The winners hoisted their trophies under the big oak tree by the clubhouse.
This is what Masters chairman Billy Payne had in mind when he announced the Drive, Chip and Putt contest a year ago to help stoke more interest among kids. More than 17,000 children signed up for qualifiers in 19 states and the District of Columbia, boys and girls from four age groups – 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15.
Pietromonaco had to go to Oregon for her local qualifying, and then her father drove her 13 hours to Washington for the chance to win a trip to Augusta.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said after winning the girls’ 12-13 division.
The skills challenge already is expanding. The organizers said there would be qualifiers in all 50 states next year, starting with 256 sites for local qualifying. They expected more than 50,000 kids to take par, with 80 finalists making it to the home of the Masters.
Augusta National only 18 months ago invited its first two women to join one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the world.
Now it has its first female champion.
Kelly Xu was the first winner from the 7-9 division for girls, and the 9-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., couldn’t stop smiling.
“I will definitely remember this experience,” she said. “To me, it’s the most special course in the world. I feel like all my hard work has really paid off, and it feels really good.”
The other winners:
-Treed Huang, Katy, Texas (boys 7-9)
-Lucy Li, Redwood City, Calif., (girls 10-11)
-Bryson Bianco, Tallahassee, Fla. (boys 12-13)
-Hunter Pate, Las Vegas, (girls 14-15)
-Patrick Welch, Providence, R.I. (boys 14-15)
Payne said a welcome dinner Saturday night was “unbelievably powerful and emotionally exciting.” He was on the practice range watching rhythmic swings and some drives by the oldest boys approach 300 yards. There are boys from the Little League World Series who made it to the big leagues, and kids from Punt, Pass and Kick who eventually made it to the NFL. That led Payne to say, “We’re going to be hearing from some of these kids again.”
“We’ll keep track of them,” Payne said. “We’ll measure success not by what they do the golf course, but by how many kids they bring to golf.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.