Childs Play at the Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Boy, does Browning Benton have a story for his pals when he goes back to school.
 
I got to see Tiger Woods, the 8-year-old gushed Thursday. Up close!
 
At the Masters no less.
 
The best part? His grandfather didnt have to pay a thing to get him in. Well, aside from that barbecue sandwich Browning ate for lunch and the big bag of souvenirs his grandfather was carrying.
 
Augusta National is hosting quite possibly the coolest play date ever this year, letting youngsters 8 to 16 in for free as long as they come with a paying patron. Toughest ticket in the sports world? Its childs play for the teen-and-tween set thanks to the new Junior Pass Program.
 
Thats one of the single best things I ever saw, three-time Masters champion'and very proud grandfather'Gary Player said. The youth of the nation are trustees of posterity. These are your future golfers.
 
Industry reports indicate the number of U.S. golfers has decreased in recent years, and Masters chairman Billy Payne has made it a priority to reverse that trend. Getting kids hooked on the game is the easiest way.
 
The Royal & Ancient has been admitting juveniles to the British Open for free the last few years when theyre accompanied by an adult, and Payne decided a similar initiative would work at Augusta National. Under the Junior Pass Program, each Masters tournament badge holder is allowed to bring one child free of charge. The Masters and British Open are the only majors that allow kids in free.
 
Despite the new policy, dont expect Amen Corner to be the site of a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party anytime soon. After all, this is still Augusta National. But the place had a definitive bounce to it as little people'mostly boys, but a few girls'mixed in with the genteel patrons whove been coming here for decades.
 
Golf Mini-Mes arrived looking spit-shined and polished in polos and khakis and clutching an adults hand so they wouldnt get lost in the crowds. Every one of them wanted to go see Tiger'Mr. Woods, some politely called him.
 
I thought it was the best thing theyve ever done, said David Clark, who brought his 9-year-old son, also named David. Ive been trying to talk him into playing golf and hes never been interested. Now that hes come out here, hes already asking if we can go play.
 
Which is the whole point.
 
Golf rounds are going down. The average golf course is getting so long. All the clubs you go to are making their golf courses longer and longer, so all the costs are going up and up, Player said. Golf is going to have to do a lot of thinking in the future. Thats why we need a lot of young people to be playing golf.
 
Augusta National has never really been adults-only. Season ticket-holders could bring a baby if they really wanted to'provided that child had an official Masters badge affixed somewhere. David Smither of Aubrey, Texas, was 8 when he came to his first Masters back in 1970, and hes come back about every other year since then.
 
But that meant a friend or a golf buddy'or worse, another family member' got shut out.
 
That was the most refreshing thing Ive heard, Smither said, referring to the Junior Pass Program. It just opens up an opportunity for all the kids who ordinarily wouldnt get a ticket.
 
Like his son, Jake.
 
The 7-year-old made his Masters debut this year. He had his own ticket'the trip was his reward for getting to the final of a U.S. Kids Golf tour event. Next year, his dad plans to bring Jakes 87-year-old grandfather, but thanks to the new program, Jake will still get to go.
 
Next year, Jake will be here without a badge, Smither said. Hes going to be able to come with me and my dad. Thats a nice thing. It allows the three generations to come together.
 
When Larry Roberson heard about the program, he immediately made plans to take Browning, his oldest grandson. Browning started hitting golf balls when he was 2, and it was Roberson who took him to play his first nine holes.
 
This is his first tournament, and the first tournament he came to was the Masters, Roberson said as Browning sat in front of him near the second green. Its amazing. Its very exciting.
 
And very hectic for Ron Draper.
 
The Augusta resident has two sons, 8-year-old Samuel and 7-year-old Paul, and there was no way he could take one and not the other. Both boys are golf fans and play at a local club. Paul is even a graduate of a golf etiquette course. So Draper brought Paul with him in the morning, and his wife was going to drop Samuel off in the afternoon.
 
They each get two hours, Draper said. My wife is doing the minivan swap.
 
Theres an idea for Payne for next year: Car pool lanes.
 
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