By: Tommy Hicks, Contributor
MOBILE, AL (June 27, 2019) – It was hot, really hot, and the humidity was registering a number even higher than the mid-90s showing on temperature gauges. So why was 8-year-old Shelbi Gleason of Theodore, Ala., smiling? And just as curiously, how was she able to ignore the heat that was affecting so many others at Magnolia Grove Golf Course in Mobile, Ala.?
Simply put, she couldn’t think of anywhere else she would rather be at that moment. This — the June 25 local qualifier for the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — she said, her smile never leaving her face, was fun. Lots of fun.
“It’s all about fun and I love how it is,’’ Shelbi said, “and I know that every time I play it just gives me joy and happiness and I love how it’s fun and everything.’’
Her dad, Sean Gleason, serving as coach, caddy and golfer, agreed wholeheartedly with his daughter. “Last year there were four girls in her age division and this year there’s eight,’’ he said, his daughter’s golf bag draped over one of his shoulders. “I think it helps grow the game of golf and lets the kids have fun. I think it shows all the good there is in golf. It’s the only game where you can call a penalty on yourself, that’s what I like to tell everybody, and so it builds character and integrity, and it’s super hard and every day is different. I love it because it’s something I can do with her for my whole life.
“It’s is an individual sport, but (the kids are) playing with their friends. You want to beat your friends, but you also want your friends to do good. It’s an awesome game. This Drive, Chip and Putt competition is drawing kids to the game of golf and growing a game that can be played forever.’’
Drive, Chip and Putt is helping usher youngsters to the game in a new way, teaching them fundamentals but also other important aspects of the game. And, as was evident in Mobile, it’s fun, too.
“There’s no entry fee and it’s open to anybody who signs up and anybody who can get here,’’ Paul Martino, Magnolia Grove’s Director of Golf who has directed the Mobile qualifiers since the Drive, Chip and Putt program began arriving in town. “This is competition in a laid back way and they all get points and they all have a good time. It is a competition, but it’s mainly about growing the game of golf.’’
Beth Barry, a golf legend in the Mobile area as she has won several amateur titles across the Southeast and nationally and has carded an incredible 42 holes-in-one in her career, served as a volunteer at the event. She was smiling too, enjoying watching all the participants taking part in the program.
“I think the Masters putting something like this on, and they’re so high class and they do everything first class, it has really been great,’’ she said. “The kids get treated in a first-class manner and it’s a great program for anybody of any skill level to come out and enjoy. And that probably will keep them working on their game to try to get better.”
“The PGA, USGA and with the Masters really pushing junior golf, I think that’s great. It’s the best way to grow the game, getting the young people involved. Even if they don’t move on to the next level (in Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying), there’s a chance that they do well in at least one aspect and they enjoy it. This really gives them a good idea of what golf is all about.’’
Competition wasn’t limited to the eight age divisions — four for boys and an equal number for girls — at the event. For the Walker family of Daphne, Ala., in-house bragging rights were up for grabs. Leigh Walker escorted her three sons, Murray, Emory and Harper, each competing in a different age division, to Magnolia Grove to take part in the day’s program. Each of the boys readily admitted they were more concerned with winning the house title than their respective age division. Murray, competing in the boys 10-11 division, accomplished both — he finished first overall with 115 points and outscored both of his brothers.
“It feels really good (to have won),’’ Murray said. “Last year I didn’t do so well but I came back this year and did really well. I’ve been practicing, improving my ball contact. Last year I didn’t make good contact driving, but this year I did much better, and putting this year I was way better, too. Mainly, I just like the fun, being out with my friends playing, I have a bunch of friends who play and we like going out together and playing and having fun. I like the competition, too. You have a bunch of people and competition, but it’s a fun way to compete. There’s not any pressure at all, you just go out and play.’’
Fun was the driving force in leading Taylor Crain to the Drive, Chip and Putt qualifier. When he wasn’t practicing his shots or competing, Taylor was found laughing and cutting up with his friends, the boys enjoying each other’s company and the game that brought them together.
Taylor of Mobile finished around the middle of the pack in the 12-13 boys competition, but he was near the top of his group in having fun. He said he began playing when his dad got him a set of clubs and he enjoys spending time on the course.
Despite dealing with scoliosis, Taylor, who is a second baseman on his little league’s baseball team as well, was a strong competitor throughout the day, especially on the putting green. “That’s the best part of it, watching them come out here and enjoy themselves and have fun,’’ said Mike Crain, Taylor’s grandfather. “Competing is one thing, but the fact they enjoy themselves and have fun when they’re out here, it makes it enjoyable to come and watch him play. Me and his grandmother both, we enjoy watching him play sports — baseball and golf and others.
“I think it’s very important that you can overcome things and achieve the goals that you want to achieve. Taylor’s got some limitations but he’s still competing and doing well. He competes and never complains and he just enjoys it so much. It’s good to see him out there.’’
Morgan Guepet of New Orleans made the trip to Mobile with the hopes of returning to Augusta National, where she competed in the national Drive, Chip and Putt finals. The experience has remained with her long after leaving Magnolia Lane.
“It was really fun. Everything was really nice and everyone was really nice and I enjoyed playing there,’’ she said. “It was just lots of fun. I’ve been playing for five years. My dad played when he was little and I (started out by) going around with him, riding in the cart and eating candy. And then I started wanting to play. I have met amazing people. And the first day I went out to play, it was just fun.’’
And Augusta National? Well, fun is not enough of a description for Morgan.
“The place is amazing,’’ she said. “I really want to go back. Everything about it is amazing. I just loved it. There are not enough words to explain it. It was a great adventure.’’
The adventure, and the fun, may be repeated as Morgan won the overall title in her division (14-15 girls) at Magnolia Grove, sending her to the next phase on the road to Augusta National.
ABOUT DRIVE, CHIP & PUTT
A joint initiative founded in 2013 by the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association and The PGA of America, Drive, Chip and Putt is a free nationwide junior golf development competition aimed at growing the game by focusing on the three fundamental skills employed in golf.
By tapping the creative and competitive spirit of girls and boys ages 7-15, Drive, Chip and Putt provides aspiring junior golfers an opportunity to play with their peers in qualifiers around the country. Participants who advance through local, sub-regional and regional qualifying in each age/gender category earn a place in the National Finals, which is conducted at Augusta National Golf Club the Sunday before the Masters Tournament and is broadcast live by Golf Channel.