AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Augusta National is hosting quite possibly the coolest play date ever.
Spit-shined and polished in polos and khakis, and on their best behavior, kids of all ages showed up at the Masters on Thursday wanting to know if Tiger — “Mr. Woods,” some politely called him — could come out and play.
“That’s one of the single best things I ever saw,” three-time Masters champion Gary Player said. “The youth of the nation are trustees of posterity. These are your future golfers.”
The best part? It didn’t cost their parents a thing. At the Masters no less.
Industry reports indicate the number of U.S. golfers has decreased in recent years, and Masters chairman Billy Payne has made it a priority to reverse that trend. Getting kids hooked on the game is the easiest way.
The Royal & Ancient has been admitting juveniles to the British Open for free the last few years when they’re accompanied by an adult, and Payne decided a similar initiative would work at Augusta National. Under the Junior Pass Program, each Masters tournament badge holder is allowed to bring one child, age 8 to 16, free of charge.
The Masters and British Open are the only majors that allow kids in free.
“I thought it was great,” said Larry Roberson, who brought his 8-year-old grandson, Browning Benton. “This is his first tournament, and the first tournament he came to was the Masters.”
Despite the new policy, don’t expect Amen Corner to be the site of a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party anytime soon. After all, this is still Augusta National.
But the place had a definitive bounce to it as little people — mostly boys, but a few girls — mixed in with the genteel patrons who’ve been coming here for decades.
“I thought it was the best thing they’ve ever done,” said David Clark, who brought his 9-year-old son, also named David. “I’ve been trying to talk him into playing golf and he’s never been interested. … Now that he’s come out here, he’s already asking if we can go play.”
Which is the whole point.
“Golf rounds are going down. The average golf course is getting so long. All the clubs you go to are making their golf courses longer and longer, so all the costs are going up and up,” Player said. “Golf is going to have to do a lot of thinking in the future. That’s why we need a lot of young people to be playing golf.”
Augusta National has never really been adults-only. Season ticket-holders could bring a baby if they really wanted to — provided that child had an official Masters badge affixed somewhere. David Smither of Aubrey, Texas, was 8 when he came to his first Masters back in 1970, and he’s come back about every other year since then.
But that meant a friend or a golf buddy — or worse, another family member — got shut out.
“That was the most refreshing thing I’ve heard,” Smither said, referring to the Junior Pass Program. “It just opens up an opportunity for all the kids who ordinarily wouldn’t get a ticket.”
Like his son, Jake.
The 7-year-old made his Masters debut this year. He had his own ticket — the trip was his reward for getting to the final of a U.S. Kids Golf tour event. Next year, his dad plans to bring Jake’s 87-year-old grandfather, but thanks to the new program, Jake will still get to go.
“Next year, Jake will be here without a badge,” Smither said. “He’s going to be able to come with me and my dad. That’s a nice thing. It allows the three generations to come together.”
The program gave Ron Draper a chance to spend the day with both of his sons — though it took some juggling. The Augusta resident has two sons, 8-year-old Samuel and 7-year-old Paul, and there was no way he could take one and not the other.
So Draper brought Paul with him in the morning, and his wife was going to drop Samuel off in the afternoon.
“It’s a great idea,” Draper said. “The growth of golf has slowed the last few years and I think it’s important they spur interest in young people, the next generation.”
Little Browning was certainly sold.
“I got to see Tiger Woods,” the 8-year-old exclaimed. “Up close!”