Augusta National — two words that intimidate professional and novice golfers alike.
But, if Rheagan Hall has any trepidation about hitting golf balls at the famed mecca, she will need to quickly learn to put her nerves aside.
Hall, an eighth-grader at Cleveland Middle School, will become part of the first group of female athletes to ever play in competition at Augusta National after winning the PGA regional Drive, Chip and Putt contest earlier this month in Atlanta. The national competition will take place in April 2014 just prior to the start of the Masters.
The invite to Augusta came after Hall joined more than 20,000 other hopefuls in the national competition. She qualified for the national finals after winning a sectional competition at Coosa Country Club in Rome, Ga., and the regional event at Atlanta Athletic Club, where she finished at the top of the list of 22 other competitors by finishing first in driving and putting, with a second in chipping.
“It was awesome,” said the young phenom. “You are playing to get to go to Augusta. That was my goal.”
The trip, however, was not what she expected in reality.
“I was not very confident at all (about getting to go),” she said. “I figured since I was hitting against the big girls that they would hit it farther and would be better golfers. But, I won. I wasn’t very confident in my driver. I took an extra club in case I couldn’t get it in (the fairway). But, once I hit my first drive I felt like I can do this.”
And do it again she did.
The competition consisted of three drives down a 30-yard wide fairway with points being scored only for shots in the fairway. Hall scored on all three of her drives with the points system based on distance, with her longest drive traveling 223 yards.
“The contestants went in alphabetical order and she was the sixth or seventh one to drive,” said Rheagan’s mother, Karen. “She hit her first drive and I was like, ‘Oh, please be in, please be in.’ She knocked it in. She got all three of her drives in, and they were gorgeous.”
The putting competition consisted of 5-foot, 16-foot and 30-foot putts on three different holes to force the contestants to deal with differing breaks. Scoring is figured by putters stopping the ball inside 18-, 24-, 36-, 48- and 60-inch rings surrounding the hole.
The chipping portion of the winner-take-all event was composed of shots from 20 yards with points awarded for rings around the cup, with the same dimensions as the putting competition.
“After she finished chipping, the waiting began,” said Karen. “It was the longest hour waiting for the others to finish. At one point a gentleman from the PGA walked by and said, ‘Young lady, do you know you have posted the highest score of the day?’ Our goal was to maybe finish well in one of the events, maybe be in the top three or top five overall. We had no expectations for her to win. Maybe my expectations were too low. I was more nervous about this than I have ever been for any tournament she has played in.”
Rheagan’s mother need not have worried. Hall posted scores of 50 in driving, 50 in putting and 46 in chipping to finish with a 146 out of a possible maximum score of 200. The golf prodigy scored on every ball she hit.
“That would have been holing every putt and holing every chip,” said, Rheagan’s father, Mack who also serves as coach for the budding champion and also is understandably proud of his daughter’s achievement and impressed with her standing in the three-skill scoring nationally. “This is 10 times bigger than we ever dreamed. We never expected it. So far, she has posted the third highest score in the nation. There is one other girl and a boy who have posted a higher score,” he revealed. The girl is in Illinois and the boy is from California.”
The real nerves came when Rheagan finished her portion of the competition and the wait for all contestants to finish began.
“I was running back and forth to the scoreboard. Once the man from the PGA told me I had posted the highest score I was shocked,” she said
When the competition finally ended is when the serious mayhem began for Rheagan, who gained instant celebrity status with PGA cameras and requests for interviews following immediately. After the chaos of the post-tournament excitement settled, plans began to form for the trip to Augusta and a different level of nerves and competition.
Typically, however, one of the biggest thrills for Rheagan will be making the trip during school time. A little less typical perhaps is being part of a group of female athletes treading ground no women have stood on before in competition.
“I’m excited. I get to get out of school, that’s a great thing,” she said with youthful anticipation. “There are two women members and no women have ever played that course (in competition). It’s kind of awesome.”
Rheagan said it would be great to look up and see Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods watching the competition, but would struggle to retain control of her emotions if her favorite golfer were in attedance. Paula Creamer is the favorite, “Because she wears pink and I just like her.” Reason enough. The presence of Creamer might not be a good thing, however.
“I don’t know what I’d do. I might not be conscious then,” she said with a laugh.