It’s not easy to make it to the 2022 Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals, even for those who have made the journey before.
Eight fortunate and talented youngsters earned a trip to Augusta National in Sunday’s DCP Regional Qualifier at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, but the other 88 participants also left with special memories.
How fitting is it when you get an opportunity to earn a trip to Augusta National during a competition at a private club founded by the golfer synonymous with the Masters? Not only has Jack Nicklaus won more green jackets than anyone else (six), he was the oldest to do so (46) and at 81 continues to serve as an honorary starter.
For a glorious day, the future of golf got to experience what Bear’s Club members such as Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and other game’s greats are treated to every day: Immaculate conditions and the presence of the Golden Bear.
No, Nicklaus was not at the Regional, but his presence was felt as much as the breezy conditions. After each of the eight age-group winners were announced, they were given a South Florida PGA flag with Nicklaus’ signature, creating another are-you-kidding-me moment.
“This is amazing Jack signed this flag for me,” said Paul Ancona of Pace, FL., who won the Boys 12-13. “It’s awesome!”
As much as the game has given Nicklaus, he has given back. Sunday was no different. Four months after a U.S. Open sectional qualifier was held at the Bear’s Club, Nicklaus again put out the welcome mat for the popular DCP program.
“Not only does Jack open the doors to his facility, he makes sure to give something to the winners,” said Geoff Lofstead, executive director of the South Florida PGA, which ran the DCP Regional. “With everything on the line to go to Augusta, Jack wanted them to be here. This is something the kids and their parents will remember the rest of their lives.”
The DCP competitions are usually family affairs, with parents and siblings on hand to support. Angela Nip of Port St. Lucie, FL., took that approach to another level when she won the Girls 14-15 competition to earn her first trip to Augusta – as a contestant.
Angela Nip has been there twice when her older sister Gloria qualified in 2015 and 2018. Now she’s the one who gets to bring her clubs to Augusta National.
“It means a lot to me to follow in my sister’s footsteps,” Angela Nip said. “She told me to stay calm and watch what the other people do. She said to treat it like it’s regular golf.”
It’s not, of course. Each player gets only three drives, three chips and three putts. A tiny mistake or a lack of focus can end their chances quickly.
Among those who survived the pressure were three Georgia residents: Lyla Hawker of Fort Gordon, GA., won Girls 7-9, Zane Madison of Fort Evans, GA., won Boys 7-9 and Trace Carter of Blackshear, GA., captured Boys 14-15.
“My drive won’t be as far, luckily,” said Hawker, who lives a mere 15 minutes from Augusta National.
The other winners were Angelina Pacheco of Orlando in Girls 12-13, Emma Kate Rice of Mountain Brook, AL., and Jeremy Castellanos of Windermere, FL., in the Boys 10-11.
Four players were hoping to earn a return trip to the DCP National Finals, including Tampa’s Elysee Meerdink, who won the Girls 10-11 this year. But golf is a game of inches; Meerdink finished second to Pacheco by 4 points – the difference a Meerdink drive that finished off the grid by less than a foot.
Ryan Nana Tanke of Palm Beach Gardens was trying to make it to his third finals, but finished third in Boys 10-11 to Castellanos. Nana Tanke was obviously disappointed, but tried to remain upbeat afterward.
“It’s fine because you can’t win every single time,” Nana Tanke said. “Next year I’m going to come back and try to qualify again.”
Naples resident Braden Miller, who made it to the 2017 finals, finished second to Carter. And 2019 finalist Beka Yang of Sylvania, OH., tied for eighth in Girls 12-13.
It’s difficult to make it to the DCP Finals once, much less make it back. But they’ll always have those memories.