AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The 40 girls and 40 boys moved in orderly fashion from the driving range to the chipping area to the putting green in their age groups.
At Augusta National, it was precision unlike any other.
The latest tradition at the Masters is the Drive, Chip and Putt national finals, with winners from eight age groups posing with Danny Willett, Bubba Watson, Nick Faldo, Mark O’Meara and other Masters champions.
Alexa Pano, already the first three-time finalist, became the first two-winner when the 12-year-old from Lake Worth, Florida, won the girls 12-13 division.
It was yet another reminder why Sunday at the Masters is unlike any other majors.
Kids ages 7 to 15 were putting on the 18th green. Jordan Spieth headed out to play with his father. Matt Kuchar took a break from his putting drill to watch Andy Scholz hole out his chip, which led to the first roar of the week at 8:03 a.m.
And the stress was at a minimum.
Except for Watson, the two-time Masters champion who had a serious game to play against former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among the first female member at Augusta National.
“She’s not talking very much to me, so I think she was getting focused on this match, because two years in a row losing, she’s not happy about that,” he said.
Danny Willett arrived on Saturday and was seen at the club wearing his green jacket for the first time since his surprise victory last year, when he rallied with a 5-under 67 and took advantage of Spieth shooting 41 on the back nine.
The green jacket has been plenty of other places, such as snooker competitions in Britain and even a few weeks ago when he hosted the “Wee Willetts,” his own program near Yorkshire where nearly 100 kids play nine holes over three courses during their summer holidays.
“As soon as you walk in the room, you see smiles from ear to ear,” Willett said.
The Masters will turn serious at some point. It is the most anticipated major of the year, mainly because of traditions, the exclusivity of the field (94 players) and perks that include an invitation for life and a seat at dinner with the Masters Club on Tuesday night.
Willett, as the defending champion, is the host this year.
“There’s going to be some true legends there, and to be in that room is going to be pretty special,” Willett said. “That’s when you start to realize you get to do that the rest of your life.”
Mostly, however, Sunday was about the kids.
Augusta National was behind the program that began in 2014 with the USGA and PGA of America, where kids from around the country go through qualifying and earn points based on how driving distance and accuracy, chipping and putting.
Finalists from eight regions face off at Augusta National.
“Can you imagine how cool it is going off to qualify and then go to Augusta National? I can’t imagine the excitement for these youngsters,” Nick Faldo said. “Most people’s goal is just to get a ticket. To actually come here and compete is fantastic.”
Others were at Augusta to get ready.
That included Spieth, who had not planned to be at the Masters until after the Houston Open, except that he missed the cut for the first time in 11 months. Spieth has been back plenty of time since his runner-up finish a year ago, most recently playing with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Showing up early never was in Faldo’s plans when he was winning the green jacket three times. Now it’s all changed. Players have been dropping in and out of Augusta for the last month to get a look at the course, which will be largely devoid of color this year because of warm weather that caused the azaleas and dogwoods to bloom early.
“We never did this modern-day prep, which I would strongly advised,” Faldo said. “The best thing to do is come here and play. We came in cold. I came in the gates for the first time in 1979 and I’ll never forget it. There was a sign that said, ‘Keep off the grass.’ I thought, ‘This is going to be trick this week.
“I was in awe of the place,” Faldo said. “I couldn’t handle it the first time around.”
He eventually figured it out.