AUGUSTA, Ga. – Hollywood endings evidently run in the Cheng household.
Andy Cheng is an assistant movie director whose works include “Twilight,” “The Rundown” and “Rush Hour,” and he occasionally doubles as actor Jackie Chan’s stuntman.
His 11-year-old son, Leo, produced his own theatrics at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.
Leo Cheng, of Northridge, Calif., claimed the Boys 10-11 Division by converting a 15-foot putt from the same spot where Adam Scott made a birdie en route to his playoff win over Angel Cabrera in the 2013 Masters. To top it off, Cheng received his trophy at the prize presentation from Scott.
Could the script have been any better?
“I felt like Adam Scott when I putted that,” said Chen, who offered a fist pump when the ball dropped, much to the delight of the gallery surrounding the green.
And what did the Australian say to Cheng before signing his cap and posing for a photo?
“He said: ‘Good job. You should be proud of yourself for winning this.’”
Cheng was one of eight overall winners in this inaugural competition, which was conducted by Augusta National, The PGA of America and the USGA. More than 15,000 youths registered to compete in local and regional competitions last summer, with the final 88 – 11 in each age division – invited to Augusta National for the finals.
The competition featured each competitor hitting two drives – the better of the two counting – that needed to land within a 30-yard wide grid, then a pair of chips and three putts, with the cumulative distance from the hole used in the scoring. A golfer could receive a maximum of 33 points – 11 in each skill – and the golfer with the most points was determined the overall winner. The divisions were broken down into four age categories: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15.
“It was the best day of my life,” said Kelly Xu, 9, of Santa Monica, Calif., the champion in the Girls 7-9 Division.
All of the competitors were in awe of the surroundings, especially when they saw the number of patrons and media members.
“I felt like my heart stopped for a second,” said Cheng of his nerves prior to his first drive. “After that first [drive], I was in first for a few minutes, and that’s what got me pumped up.”
Cheng, who posted 30 points to edge Bradford Chandler, of Fairfax, Va., by three, was even more excited when his parents presented him with a green jacket they had purchased in China last summer after Leo had qualified for the finals. Each Masters champion receives a green jacket. Cheng knew about the jacket, but he wasn’t prepared to meet Scott.
“I wouldn’t expect him to come here and give me his autograph and take pictures with me,” said Cheng, who will have quite a tale for his fifth-grade classmates at Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School. “I thought he would be out there playing with Vijay Singh or someone [else].”
The youngest age division kicked off the competition and Xu made history by becoming the first female champion in the history of Augusta.
“It felt really exciting that all my hard work has really paid off,” said Xu in a post-event press conference.
Xu posted 10 points apiece in the drive and chip portions, and despite struggling with her putting (4.5 points), managed to hold off Raina Ports, of Tucson, Ariz., by 1.5 points (24.5-23).
“I was extremely nerve-wracked [at the outset], but when I went to hit the ball, I felt like I’ve been doing this for a long time and am used to it, so then I wasn’t nervous anymore,” said Xu, a fourth-grader at Roosevelt Elementary School who plays at the nine-hole Penmar-By-The-Sea Golf Course in Venice, Calif.
A look at the other divisions and winners:
Treed Huang, 9, of Katy, Texas, was shivering on the driving range prior to the competition, but it didn’t take long for him to shed the nerves. Huang won the opening skill with a 173-yard drive en route to posting 27 points, two better than Logan Medcalf, of Lynden, Wash.
Huang first took up the game six years ago when his father, Yufu, a software engineer who moved from China 16 years ago, bought plastic clubs and allowed Treed to hit plastic balls in the house. A year later, he was getting formal instruction. And five years after that, he earned his way to Augusta National.
“It was much better than I expected,” said the soft-spoken third-grader.
Huang saw on the scoreboard that he needed to get his final putt within 4 feet of the hole to secure the title. He lagged to 2 feet.
“I was confident,” said Huang.
Lucy Li, 11, of Redwood City, Calif., is no stranger to the national spotlight, having qualified for a pair of USGA championships last summer. Li surpassed Michelle Wie as the youngest match-play qualifier at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at age 10, and two months later she was the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Amateur history, where she carded a 1-under-par 70 in the second round of stroke play.
Li certainly wasn’t overwhelmed by the television cameras or the gallery, winning the drive and chip portions en route to a one-point victory over Jacqueline Nguyen, of Houston, Texas.
“Maybe [there was extra pressure], but not for myself because I just enjoy playing,” said Li, who admitted to being more nervous for this competition than the U.S. Women’s Amateur. “It means a lot for me to be [at Augusta National] where all the great players from the game have been.”
In order to keep his daughter coming back to the golf course, Dean Pietromonaco would give Starbursts to Natalie. At age 4, she needed something to pique her interest. Now 13 and an eighth-grader at Newcastle Elementary School in Auburn, Calif., Pietromonaco has seen her game progress without such incentives.
“I can’t eat them anymore,” said Pietromonaco, who, despite a slow start in the drive competition, rallied for a one-point victory over Christine Wang, of Houston, Texas, (24-23). “[Chipping and putting] definitely is the stronger part of my game. I work a lot more on my short game than my long game. I think it helps a lot.”
Pietromonaco traveled 14 hours by car to Washington state for her regional final and she made the trek pay off at Augusta National.
Bryson Bianco, of Tallahassee, Fla., says driving is one of his strengths and the 13-year-old used a 261-yarder to win that skill. He then held off Jack McMullin, of Seattle, Wash., for a one-point win, 25-24.
“All the practice paid off,” said Bianco, an eighth-grader at the Maclay School, who plays out of Golden Eagle Golf & Country Club. “It’s been a little cold there [in Florida] this winter, but we’ve been still practicing. Usually, it’s four days a week.”
Winning the drive competition put Bianco a bit at ease heading into the final two skills.
“I was a little nervous toward the beginning about coming here,” he said, “but you’ve just got to stay comfortable. My legs were definitely shaking for that first tee shot. It got easier after the first one.”
Jack Pate couldn’t help but let out a loud exclamation when his 14-year-old daughter, Hunter, won the 14-15 Division with 27 points, 1.5 more than Johanna Alberto, of Kingwood, Texas.
Hunter, who lives in Las Vegas, Nev., couldn’t believe it herself when Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice announced the winner.
“They had the standings, but I wasn’t sure exactly how much I was down by,” said Pate after receiving her trophy. “I was too nervous [to look].”
Pate said qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links definitely helped in preparing her for this big stage. Pate missed the match-play cut, but the experience fueled her desire to improve.
“Feeling all the emotions there and then coming here, it was really similar,” said Pate, an eighth-grader at Grant Sawyer Middle School.
Pate finished second in both the drive and putt categories en route to the title.
“I really just wanted to get [my drive] in the fairway no matter what,” she said. “I thought I was going to miss both of them and when I got the first one in it was like a weight had been lifted.”
The roar that went up behind the 18th green rivaled those when Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson won the Masters. But the cheer wasn’t for one of golf’s two most recognizable players.
Patrick Welch, 14, of Providence, R.I., had just holed a putt to seal a 28-25 victory over Juan Contreras, of Phoenix, Ariz. Welch, who was the youngest competitor at the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., was awed by the experience.
“It was surreal,” said Welch, an eighth-grader at Nathan Bishop Middle School. “It was amazing. I tried to take it in as much as I possibly could. I was surprised by how loud it was.”
Big accomplishments are nothing new for Welch, who won the 2013 Rhode Island State Junior Amateur just four days after qualifying for DCP. Last summer, he also became the youngest competitor in the Rhode Island Amateur.
Despite the harsh, prolonged winter in the Northeast, Welch said he managed to get in some practice time.
“I just had to pick good days to practice,” he said.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer at the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.