James Bradley stopped just short of saying that competing in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on April 7 at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia was a once-in-a-lifetime moment as he plans on making a return trip as soon as next year—but he said it was certainly something he'll never forget.
"The experience was definitely great," the 12-year-old said from his Springs home this past Sunday. "It was great just to get there and get that experience and the confidence it gave me, more mentally than physically, to be able to handle the pressure in a bigger tournament."
Bradley made the trip with his parents, Scott and Gina Bradley, and his coach Kevin Smith, from his home course of Montauk Downs. The crew headed south on Friday and Bradley was able to get some practice in both Friday and Saturday at the River Golf Club, located less than 7 miles across state line over the Savannah River in North Augusta, South Carolina. On Sunday morning, Bradley took a shuttle from his hotel at 7:45 a.m., arrived at Augusta National—the annual site of the Masters—around 8 a.m., and about 45 minutes later was teeing off to start the competition.
The competition was certainly stiff at Nationals, and it didn't help that Bradley was one of the youngest and physically smallest competitors in his age group at just 4 feet 10 inches tall. Bradley placed ninth in the drive, ninth in the chip and eighth in the putt. He said he got more relaxed as the day went on, but that the chipping portion was probably the toughest part for him
"I knew it was going to be [hard] before it even started, because the day before it had rained. So in the morning, the grass was wet, so it tough to have a lot of confidence going in," he said. "I didn’t want to hit it too fat. I didn’t want to hit it too thin. I didn't really commit to my second chip, but it wasn’t horrible.
"It was a very strong field in my division," Bradley added. "I'm only 4-10. One of the kids in the top three was 6-1. And I was the youngest one there competing, and some of them had been there before."
Bradley, who played his first year of varsity golf as a seventh-grader with East Hampton this fall, was one of 10 boys who qualified for Nationals in the 12-to-13-year-old age group after placing in the top three of local, regional and sub-regionals last summer. Bradley placed second at the local qualifier at Harbor Links Golf Club in Port Washington on July 6, won the sub-regional qualifier at Bethpage Black on August 16, then won the regional qualifier at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck on September 23.
His parents spoke about how proud they were of their son. It was just over three years ago that Mr. Bradley was watching the same event with his son on TV and the two dreamed of making it to Augusta together.
"It's hard to describe just how special it was to experience that with your son. Just getting there was a win," Mr. Bradley said.
"We love his passion for the sport," Ms. Bradley said. "I think he really got to be a role model nationwide being on national TV. I mean, I've never done anything like that before, so we're just really proud of him and really grateful for all of the support we've gotten from his coaches, the local clubs in Montauk Downs and Poxabogue, and everyone in the community. They've all been supportive."
Drive, Chip and Putt is a joint initiative founded in 2013 by the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association and The PGA of America, and is a free nationwide junior golf development competition aimed at growing the game by focusing on the three fundamental skills employed in golf. It 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 the Sunday before the Masters Tournament and is broadcast live by the Golf Channel.
Participants accumulate points in the drive by landing a shot on a 40-yard-wide fairway. The longer the shot, the more points are scored. A 300-foot plus drive would garner the max of 25 points, and works its way down in 10-yard increments.
Participants have three 10-to-15-yard shots at the scoring hole in the chip portion, and all shots are measured from the center of the hole with clearly marked scoring rings. A hole in one lands the max of 25 points. A ball finishing two inches or nearer the hole scores 20 points, and there is a point system that is followed for everything farther away from the hole.
For the putt portion, each participant has one putt attempt from each distance of 6 feet, 15 feet and 30 feet. Like the chip, shots are measured from the center of the hole with clearly marked scoring rings and a hole in one is 25 points, a ball finished one inch or nearer to the hole is 20 points, etc.
On top of being able to play at one of the most famed golf courses in the world, Bradley got to meet a number of celebrities, many from the golfing world, such as professional golfers Bubba Watson and Annika Sörenstam, Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo of the Golf Channel, the chairman of Augusta National Billy Payne, and Anthony Sessa, the head professional at East Hampton Golf Club during the summer who also serves as co-pro at Augusta National during the winter. Bradley also met former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The goal, Bradley said, is to return to Nationals next year to "get some redemption." He's confident that being a year older and playing in the same age group will help him improve upon this performance. For now, he'll be working on his game, but with the local qualifier coming up soon, he won't have to wait long to start another memorable journey.