Sarah Balding

Sarah Balding advanced to the Drive, Chip & Putt National finals by winning a playoff in the regional finals at Whistling Straits.

Sarah Balding has the right perspective on the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the talented junior golfers who make it to Augusta National and get to compete on the grandest stage in golf on the eve of the Masters Tournament.

Given just three drives, three chips and three putts, however, the DC&P doesn’t truly identify the best age-group golfers.

“Maybe a week or two ago I would have told you I was a little nervous,” said Balding, 15, a member of the girls’ golf team at Brookfield Central High School and one of Wisconsin’s top-ranked juniors. “But I’m kind of at the point where I’m past that nervousness and now I’m just excited to get down there.

“I feel like I’m going to do my best and how that compares to everyone else, who knows? We’re all great golfers. It just comes down to who puts it together on that day.”

Balding earned her spot in the national finals by winning a regional at Whistling Straits in September. She is one of 80 junior golfers representing 27 states and four Canadian provinces who made it to the finals, to be held Sunday and televised by Golf Channel from 7 a.m. to noon.

Conducted in partnership between the Masters Tournament, the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association, the Drive, Chip & Putt competition is open to boys and girls ages 7-15. There are four age divisions; Balding qualified in girls 14-15.

Augusta National pulls out all the stops to make the event a memorable one for the contestants and their families, paying expenses for each junior and his or her chosen “caddie” (usually a parent), giving them Monday practice round tickets and putting them up in area hotels.

Of course, the biggest thrill is getting to compete on the club’s perfectly manicured practice area, in front of green-jacketed club members and players and former champions who arrive early for the 83rd Masters Tournament. Official practice rounds start Monday.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the different pros and being able to experience what they’re experiencing,” Balding said.

Accompanying Balding will be her father, Shawn; her mother, Carmen; her older sister, Emily, a member of the DePauw University golf team; and her swing coach, Chuck Wood, the head PGA professional at Oconomowoc Golf Club.

Wood will be Balding’s caddie.

“You’re allowed to have a caddie in the competition area but I’m not that good of a golfer,” Shawn Balding said. “Chuck has this timber in his voice that is so calm and soothing to the players. So, I felt like that’s who I wanted with her.”

The Balding contingent will arrive in Augusta on Friday and Sarah will practice off-site on Saturday, when the final round of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur is held.

Sarah has talked to previous DC&P finalist Emily Lauterbach, a University of Wisconsin recruit from Hartland Arrowhead, about what to expect. Shawn said he thinks his daughter will handle the hoopla, excitement and pressure of the national finals just fine.

“I think she’s going to just love it, actually,” he said. “I told her, ‘You don’t have to be nervous. All you can do is go out and do what you can do that day.’ It’s a small sampling of golf shots. If she does well, that’s great. If she’s not on, that’s just how it goes.

“She’s a golfer and these are golf skills. If you play poorly for the first three holes (of a round) you can make that up because you have 15 holes left. But if you just have six shots, it can go either way really quickly. Two bad shots and you’re kind of out of it. I told her you’ve got to enjoy the moment.

“It’s a great achievement just to get there. All the rest is just enjoying the experience and seeing a great golf course.”

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