AUGUSTA, Ga. — A year ago, Devon Bling stood at the practice range at Augusta National Golf Club watching PGA players like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth preparing to play in the Masters Tournament.
Bling and his UCLA teammates had just finished playing in a collegiate tournament at Augusta University, and they stuck around for a practice round on Monday.
“I told myself, ‘I hope I’ll be able to do that someday,'” Bling recalled. “I didn’t know it would happen so soon.”
On Monday, Bling will be back on the practice range at Augusta National Golf Club, this time as one of six amateurs competing against the best players in the world at perhaps the most famous golf course in the world. Four months after Bling made his first trip as a patron, he secured an invitation to play in the Masters by finishing runner-up to Oklahoma State’s Viktor Hovland in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach in August.
“It’s been a dream of mine to play at Augusta, especially in the Masters,” Bling said, after a practice round at Augusta National earlier this month. “I’ve watched the tournament since I was a little kid. I’m just going to cherish it.”
When Bling steps to the No. 1 tee for his first shot of the opening round of the Masters on April 11, he’ll reach into his pocket for a TaylorMade ball with a custom number — 21.
He’ll undoubtedly think of his late mother, Sara Bling, whose birthday is May 21. She dreamed of watching him play at Augusta, too.
“She’ll be with me — always,” Bling said. “She’s always with me everyday.”
Tragically, the only time Sara Bling didn’t watch her oldest son compete in a junior golf tournament was the day he unexpectedly lost her forever. Devon and his father, Nick Bling, were at a junior tournament in California when they received a frantic phone call from a family friend.
Sara Bling had stayed back at the family’s home in Ridgecrest, California, to take her younger son, Dillon, to a soccer tournament. When she didn’t wake up that morning, Dillon found her unresponsive in bed. He called family friends, who rushed to the house. They called paramedics. Sara was taken to a local hospital.
Sara had a blood clot in the back of her brain. By the time she was transferred to a hospital in Bakersfield, California, it was too late. She died with her family by her side on Feb. 8, 2013. She was 44.
“They were blessed to have her as a mother,” Nick Bling said. “They were her highest priority. She ran the house, paid the bills and took them to school, piano lessons, golf tournaments and Boy Scouts. She was a full-time mom. She did everything for them.”
Sara’s favorite thing to do was watching Devon and his brother play golf. From the time Devon started playing competitively in 2009, she never missed a tournament — until that fateful day more than six years ago. She was his biggest fan and a calming influence on the course.
“She sacrificed a lot for my golf career,” Devon said.
Sara Bling was born in London; her husband was born in India but moved to the U.S. in 1978. They met through mutual friends in the Bay Area and they married in 1990. She worked as a physical therapist until Devon was born. Nick’s work requires him to travel internationally, so she became a stay-at-home mom.
“She did everything,” Devon said. “Everything you can think of, she did it.”
Sara and Nick Bling built their son’s golf game from the ground up together. Devon was introduced to the sport by watching his father hit golf balls into a net in their garage. He received his first set of clubs — plastic, with whiffle balls — when he was 2½ years old. It didn’t take Nick long to realize his son had a gift.
“I noticed early on that his eye-hand coordination was very good,” Nick said. “When I threw a football with him, it took about one minute to teach him how to do it. He dribbled a basketball without even looking at the ball.”
One day, while Nick was watching TV in the family room, his 3-year-old son hit plastic practice balls into the back of the sofa where he was lying.
“He was whacking them,” Nick said. “I told him to do it again. He already had a full swing.”
Nick, an electrical engineer, played golf occasionally and was a 12 handicap or so. He set out to teach his son the fundamentals of the game. It was before the rise of the internet, so he purchased a golf encyclopedia from Costco for $15 and read it from cover to cover.
“I think his dad is a brilliant man and one of the smartest men I know,” said UCLA assistant coach Andrew Larkin, who will be on Devon’s bag at the Masters. “I think he was able to digest the golf swing and break down the golf swing from a technical standpoint because he’s an engineer. I think that’s the foundation of Devon’s golf swing. He’s very technically sound.”
When Devon was ready to hit wedges and short irons, Nick purchased four pins and a bag of 600 golf balls. He scattered the flags in the desert behind their home at varying distances, from 35 yards to 79 yards. On one hole, Devon and Dillon had to hit a shot over a wrought-iron fence and swimming pool — but short of the solar panels behind their house.
“He shattered one of the panels,” Nick said. “He still owes me one.”
Over the years, Devon and Dillon moved the pins around the two and a half acres behind their house. They created their own bunkers and attempted trick shots over the house, trees and bushes.
“There were a lot of sandy lies,” Devon said.
By the time Devon reached middle school, the China Lake Golf Course at the Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest became his second home. It was hardly Augusta National, especially when Canada geese were migrating through.
“It has the toughest lies you’ve ever seen,” Devon said. “If you can hit it there, you can hit it anywhere.”
Devon practiced at China Lake every day after school, spending hours on the driving range and putting green. During the summer, Sara dropped her sons at the course early in the morning and didn’t pick them up until dusk.
“He never wanted to come home for dinner,” Nick said. “When I told him he had to leave, people thought I was being hard on him. I was only telling him he had to eat.”
Sara and Nick made sure their sons were well rounded. She started a local chess club and raised money for tournaments. Devon learned to play piano, guitar and violin. He played soccer, basketball and football when he was younger, but golf was his passion.
“I played chess more for golf,” Devon said. “It forced me to think about the consequences and look ahead. It taught me how to play for percentages.”
In 2009, Devon played in his first junior tournament in San Diego. He had seven clubs in his bag — driver, 3-wood, three irons, sand wedge and putter — and finished in the top 10. By the time Devon enrolled at UCLA in 2017, he had 15 top-10 finishes in 24 American Junior Golf Association events. He was also a back-to-back club champion at China Lake Men’s Club and set the course record with a 59.
“He was raw in the fact that he hadn’t seen great facilities or practiced at great facilities,” UCLA coach Derek Freeman said. “But his talent is his talent, and it’s as good as it gets. I think that’s one of the cool parts of his story is that he doesn’t have the background that a lot of these great golfers have. He’s from a military family and this obscure place in California. He didn’t grow up on a great golf course. He’s just a kid that’s hungry and wants to work.”
As a freshman at UCLA, Bling won the Jackrabbit Invitational in Boulder City, Nevada, before his memorable week at the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. He was tied for 36th after two rounds of stroke play and then won five straight matches before falling to Hovland 6 and 5 in the 36-hole final.
“He’s a huge fighter, and I’ve always loved that about him,” Freeman said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to recruit him. He just never gives up, even if he’s not playing well and it’s not going well in a tournament. He’s just not going to give up.”
Regardless of what happens at Augusta next week, whether he misses the cut or finishes in the top 25, Devon has already fulfilled his mother’s dreams for him.
“She would be really proud,” he said. “She sacrificed a lot for my golf career. She would probably tell me what she told me my entire life — trust what your father taught you and believe in yourself.”