Sunday at Augusta was like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory

By Jason SobelApril 7, 2014, 8:45 pm

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.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”