Sunday at Augusta was like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory


AUGUSTA, Ga. – About halfway through Sunday’s inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship that featured children ages 7-15 competing for the first time here at Augusta National Golf Club, I received a text message from a friend in the golf industry: “This feels like Willy Wonka opening up his chocolate factory to the kids.”

There couldn’t have been a better analogy.

Eighty-eight of these kids received golden tickets to golf’s most exclusive and, yes, reclusive theater. Eighty-eight young Charlie Buckets joined by their Grandpa Joes in search of success on the game’s grandest stage – which they say is even sweeter than chocolate.

There was Natalie Pietromonaco, 13, who after winning her age division, said, “It was just such an amazing experience to come out here and be able to practice at the world’s best golf course.” There was Patrick Welch, 14, who vowed, “I would describe it as an amazing experience. … To play out here and practice out here is just amazing.”

And there was Kelly Xu, 9, who when asked if she understood the significance of becoming the first female to win an open competitive event at Augusta National, broke into an ear-to-ear grin and declared, “Yes!”

Didn’t seem like there were any ungracious Veruca Salts or ungrateful Augustus Gloops in the bunch.

If Masters week is where the game’s elite meet to determine history, the Sunday beforehand has always been the calm before the storm. In past years, I’ve seen Tiger Woods tee off the first hole with less than a dozen spectators in attendance; I’ve seen Phil Mickelson begin a title defense by first pulling a member away from a leisurely lunch, so he could get on with his practice regimen.

The scene has always been equal parts stunning and surprising, its shock value rooted in watching the game’s most recognizable faces without swarms of observers nearby. On Sunday, though, that scene was stolen – heck, the entire show was stolen – by the 88 kids competing on this hallowed ground.

Oh, sure, there were still a few dozen players in the 96-man field going through their pre-tourney preparation, but even they seemed more focused on the next generation than their own games.

“It’s amazing to see so many people out here and the kids having a fun time,” said defending champion Adam Scott. “I think there’s been a lot of high-fives thrown. I was watching some of the telecast earlier and saw some incredible swings. The future looks bright for golf.”

“Being here in person and seeing the smiles on their faces and watch their parents walk with them is a dream, too,” added Bubba Watson, who won here two years ago, “so it’s cool.”

If success isn’t measured simply by the impressed expressions of big-time players or the boundless enthusiasm of the youngsters who competed here, then – like so many other perspectives around here – it will be measured by those who wear the green jackets.

And after their inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, they were beaming.

“It became clear to me about a month ago that they were going to bring that emotion to the golf course,” insisted Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. “We are going to have a lot of kids who want to find their way to Augusta National.”

With a mission increasingly intent on growing the game, Payne and his cohorts with the USGA and PGA of America opened up the factory and showed the kids with those golden tickets how the chocolate is made. In the process, the gatekeepers probably learned a few things themselves, not the least of which is how a fresh dose of passion can send ripples through an entire industry in desperate need of a smile.

On a day that was previously only viewed through the prism of those privileged enough to qualify for the tournament or own membership here, Augusta National officials turned their club into the world’s coolest playground.

The upcoming Masters, with all of its fanfare and affectation, will continue as planned. This day, though, belonged to the kids. It belonged to the next generation of great golfers – or maybe just the next generation of fans who want to see the great golfers.

When it was all over, Xu, one of those 88 dazzling Charlie Buckets with a golden ticket, briefly stopped smiling to answer a question about the weight of her new trophy.

“It’s really heavy,” the 9-year-old said. She could have been talking about the weightiness of such a day or that of becoming the first female to win at Augusta National.

Speaking of which, Pietromonaco, one of the other girls division winners, could be overheard receiving a congratulatory pep talk from an Augusta member who told her, “I hope we’ll see you competing here again soon.”

If you listened closely enough, it almost sounded like Willy Wonka asking Charlie how he liked the factory.

“I think it’s the most wonderful place in the whole world!”

“I’m very pleased to hear you say that, because I’m giving it to you.”

Hey, it might sound like a fictional tale, but Sunday was a time for dreaming big at Augusta National.