AUGUSTA, Ga. — Treed Huang said he felt goose bumps as his van rolled down Magnolia Lane on Sunday morning. Mind you, maybe that shouldn’t really be all that surprising. Don’t all 80 girls and boys competing in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals get them upon arriving at Augusta National?
The thing is, Huang wasn’t about to make his first appearance in the DCP. Try his fourth. The eighth grader from Katy, Texas, has become such a regular in the event—one of three four-time participants this year along with Vanessa Borovilos and Megha Ganne—you wonder if they might have given him his own locker.
“It still feels pretty amazing,” insisted Huang, whose younger sister, Maye, was competing on Sunday as well, having qualified for her second time. “The pressure is still there. That hasn’t gone away.”
Experience seemed to pay off, as Huang walked off as the Boys 14-15 division champion, the second time he’s won at Augusta after taking the 7-9 title in 2014. “To do it again, it’s pretty special,” Huang said.
Special remains the operative word around the DCP. Now in its sixth year, the event, organized jointly by Augusta National, the USGA and the PGA of America, has settled in as a staple of Masters week—not to mention the overall junior golf calendar (three levels of qualifying to reach the national finals take place around the country between May and October). Any concerns that it might lose some luster with the launch of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur were assuaged on Sunday.
“These kids are just so impressive,” said Bubba Watson, who was among the former Masters champions who helped hand out awards to the participants. “Not just their games, but them as individuals.”
It’s getting harder to remember the days before the youngsters took center stage the Sunday prior to the year’s first major. There’s a sense of belonging.
It’s why the exchange that played out early Sunday morning seemed humorous and ho-hum all at the same time. There was Danny Willett, rolling a few balls on the putting green outside the clubhouse before getting in one last practice round on the closed-to-the-public course before patrons descend on Monday. Just as he was about to pull the trigger on a 10-footer, a purple golf ball suddenly scooted by his left foot. The 2016 Masters champion looked up to see 10 competitors in the Girls 7-9 getting in some last-minute prep before they competed on the 18th green. When he saw the culprit, he waved and smiled.
The encouraging part of the whole thing is that while the DCP is maturing, it has yet to get old. Whether playing in it for the first time or the fourth, the participants continue to experience a wow factor that’s hard to describe but easy to spot in the expressions on their faces.
“It’s better than my expectations,” said Matthew Vital, an eighth grader from Bethlehem, Pa., who took the title in the Boys 12-13 division. Vital had tried for a few years to qualify for the national finals (along with his twin brother Michael), falling short every year.
“He was like, ‘Let’s try one more time. I know I can do it,’ ” said dad, Gus Vital. “Sure enough, we’re here and now he’s a winner. Pretty amazing.”
There was a particular sentimentality to Sunday for one man with Augusta National ties. Toby Wilt, a long-time club member who voice is known to many who watch the Masters—he’s the starter on the first tee—was an anxious observer on Sunday as his grandson, Hudson Wilt from Nashville, Tenn., competing in the Boys 12-13 division.
“It’s gratifying,” he said, Hudson finishing sixth in his division. “Hudson puts in a lot of work to his game so to see it pay off like this is wonderful.”
“Honestly, I can’t really believe it,” said Sophia Li, winner of the Girls 10-11 division. “I’ve been watching it on TV the last few years. To think I’m actually here kind of blows my mind a little. The only bad thing is the day goes by so fast.”
Indeed, when you’ve qualified last fall, you can’t wait for April to arrive. But once that Sunday does, you wish time could stand still, if only for a few hours.
Of course, nothing says you can’t earn your way back. Just ask Treed Huang.
“I’ve got one more year left. You bet I’m going to try to get there one last time.”