It is time for the first quiz of the new season: What two things do Patrick Welch and Bubba Watson have in common?
One part of the answer is easy for anyone who has seen the two play. They stand on opposite sides of the ball, but both use a left-hand low grip. Watson does what lefthanders are supposed to do by keeping his left hand below the right. Welch is different. He plays right-handed, but holds the club cross-handed so that he too, keeps his left hand low.
The second thing the two share just happened in April. They both won championships at the famed Augusta National Golf Club.
Watson, of course, took his second Masters title in three years. One week earlier, Welch, a 14-year-old from Providence who is the reigning R.I. Golf Association Junior Champion, won the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship held at Augusta National in his age group. Welch had a more exciting time on the 18th green than Watson did. Watson had a three-shot lead and already had clinched his second green jacket by the time he got to 18.
A week earlier, on the same green, with the same pin position, Welch rolled in an 18-footer to clinch the title in the boys 14- and 15-year-old division in the event that holds four separate divisions for boys and girls aged 7-15.
Welch went to the event with no expectations. “I’ve never been in anything like that,’’ he said. “I didn’t know what to expect.’’ It turned out to be a truly memorable experience in an event telecast live by The Golf Channel.
“It was unbelievable, so much more than I expected,’’ the eighth grader related, “Going up Magnolia Lane, hitting on the facilities, putting, chipping, watching the pros. It was just amazing being out there. It was pretty special. I’ve seen it every year on TV so I kind of knew what the place looks like, but I didn’t know what the facilities look like. It was a lot bigger than I thought. It’s a really large facility,’’ he said.
The club, which is one of the sponsors of the Drive, Chip and Putt event, treated the youngsters the same way it treats the players in The Masters. Welch got to meet and get his picture taken with Billy Payne, the club chairman, and with Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State who was the first woman admitted as a club member. The week got off to a great start when he met Brad Faxon as he and his family were checking into their hotel.
“I met a lot of people,’’ Welch said. “I met Fred Couples, Tom Watson, Michael Allen, Larry Mize, Jordan Spieth, Tim Clark and Jim Furyk,’’ he said. “They were all really nice.’’ Couples provided the highlight. He was told about how Welch swings cross-handed.
“He wanted to see me swing a few drivers before the competition,’’ Welch related. “He came over and watched. “Couples had an interesting reaction as Welch drilled drives down the middle. “He kind of laughed,’’ Welch said.
Welch knows he plays the game differently. But he has been holding the club cross handed for all shots since he began playing the game at age three as he followed his father around. He is not ready to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’’ he said.
Welch’s ability to hit the ball long and straight was a key to his victory. The driving starts the competition. Last summer, as he won the RIGA Juniors at 13 and not only qualified for match play in the State Amateur but won a match as well, he was 5-feet-3, 94 pounds. His best drives went 210-220 yards. Now, he is 5-6 and 108 pounds and, as his father Marty relates, “He’s much stronger.’’
Each player gets to hit two drives. Welch hit the first 238 yards. He knew he was safe, so he swung harder on the second one. It went 253 yards down the middle to win the competition. He then finished fourth in the chipping contest.
He had the lead going to the putting, in which each player is required to attempt a six-footer, a 30-footer and then an 18-footer on the 18th green, with the pin in its Sunday placement.
“I thought the most important thing was that you had to make the six-footer,’’ he said. And so he did. He hit the 30-footer too hard and it slid four and one-half feet past. As the leader, he went last in the putt on the 18th green. There were notes on the video board pointing out what he had to do to win, but he did not want to pay too much attention.
“I just wanted to get it close,’’ he said. “I hit it a little too hard. The green was so fast.’’ But he also picked the perfect line. The ball hit the back of the cup, popped up and then dropped in the cup. He gave a fist pump as it dropped, a move that became one of the highlights as the competition was shown during The Masters telecast.
Paul Kenyon is the recently retired sports writer from the Providence Journal who will be doing a feature story in each issue of Southern New England Golfer.
Another New Englander, Jon Honeywell of Vermont, finished third in the Boy’s 7-9 division in Augusta. His parents, Dave and Christine, are my friends and they all went down to Georgia and said that it was the greatest time and a thrill of a lifetime. The entries close for 2015 applications on April 30, that is right next this publishing date.