The road less traveled: How a New York City golf program led two girls to Augusta National
When it comes to knee-knocking pressure, the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals ranks up there with any event in golf. Imagine being a kid competing at Augusta National Golf Club — OMG, Augusta National! — on the Sunday before Masters week, Golf Channel cameras locked on your every swing. More stressful still is the Darwinian format: Contestants accumulate points through a series of six shots and only six shots. Two drives. Two chips. Two putts — the first from 30 feet, the second from half that distance. There is no room for error.
No girl in the six years of the competition has ever holed both putts, so when in the 2019 edition 10-year-old Sophia Li drained the first of her two attempts only 15 feet stood between her and history. Also at stake for the youngster from the New York City borough of Queens was the chance to cap an unlikely comeback and win her age division.
With a left-hand-low grip and ponytail popping out of her cap, Sophia coolly drew back her putter and sent the ball rolling across Augusta National’s sloping 18th green. Just as it looked like the putt might miss low, Sophia’s ball caught the left edge of the hole.
“Oh, come on!” Mike Tirico boomed, calling the action for the Golf Channel telecast. “Oh, come on!”
Fist pump. Big grin. Applause from her opponents. Waiting to congratulate Sophia on winning her age group was former Secretary of State and Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice. Sophia’s father, James, also looked on greenside with a smile that seemed to reach to Amen Corner.
“It was a bit unreal,” Sophia said later. “I couldn’t really contemplate the feelings that I felt after I won.”
A New York City borough is not the most conducive place to learn how to play golf, let alone to become one of the nation’s top juniors — most of the game’s best young players hail from Florida, California, Arizona, and other warm-weather destinations. But Sophia has made the most of her urban surrounds. She plays with her PGA Junior League team at Trump Ferry Point, under the shadows of the Whitestone Bridge; she practices at the Junior Golf Annex in the Flushing Meadows neighborhood of Queens; and when the weather’s lousy she hones her putting stroke on a carpeted hallway in her Fresh Meadows home, about seven miles west of Citi Field.
But much of Sophia’s training has come through another source. She participates in a New York City program that is giving young golfers opportunities to not only learn the game but also to compete at the highest level: City Parks Foundation CityParks Golf.
The roots of CityParks Golf date to 1999, when Tiger Woods was beginning to take over the golf world. Mike Silverman, who serves as the sports director at the City Parks Foundation, was hearing from parents who wanted the organization to expand its youth sports offerings. “We were getting phone calls in my office like, ‘Hey, we love your tennis program, but what about golf?’” Silverman says. “It’s really kind of funny the impact he had to get the public interested in the game. So I was trying to figure out how to introduce the sport in a way that made sense for us because we’re a park-based organization.”
Silverman believed that the best way to introduce the game was through the same way most city kids learn a new sport: at neighborhood parks. More specifically, on baseball fields. The idea came to Silverman after he was biking by an empty field and realized it could be repurposed for golf in the summer after baseball season had finished.
“We put a flag in left field and kids would tee off the mats,” Silverman recalls. “We’d have a chipping area and a putting green area and kids would rotate and just get exposure to the game.”
After receiving approval from the Parks commissioner, Silverman set up the free program at eight different sites across the city. He had no clue how many kids be interested — until nearly 1,000 kids showed up to play. “I kind of knew we were onto something,” Silverman says. “It gave me a little bit of a shot in the arm to want to try this and see where it went.”
Along with exposing city kids to golf and making the game more accessible, Silverman says another goal of the program is to turn the juniors into lifelong golfers. One way to accomplish that is by providing them with equipment, thanks to donations raised by the foundation. The organization’s golf program has also received financial support from Lacoste and First Tee.
As the program grew, Silverman knew baseball fields weren’t going to cut it. So the City Parks Foundation developed two junior golf centers, one in Brooklyn, another in Queens. The Brooklyn center, next to the Dyker Beach municipal course, has a six-hole par-3 course, putting and chipping greens, and a driving range, and offers free instruction and equipment for all skill levels. The Queens location, in Flushing Meadows, has similar amenities, plus an 18-hole par-3 course. “The junior golf centers really took the program to another level,” Silverman said. “The kids needed a facility where they could use practice courses, putting greens, and a driving range.”
The centers and parks now have more than 2,000 participants.
At the beginning of a typical class, the instructors huddle up the students in a classroom to discuss values such as safety and respect and how those values are essential parts of golf. The students are excited to get out on the course but also attentive to what is being said as they sit in metal folding chairs facing the instructors at the front of the classroom.
As class concludes, the instructors gather the students in the same classroom to recap what they did well, what they need to do better, and how it all relates to school, home and their other activities. The program wants students to walk away with lessons in golf that they can apply to life.
Another way that Silverman and his team have tried to grow the game in New York City beyond the parks is by providing golf lessons at each of the 14 public courses within the city limits. The courses, including Dyker Beach — where Tiger Woods’ father Earl learned how to play golf while stationed at Fort Hamilton — allow juniors to come out for twilight hours and play a few holes.
“That’s where the whole thing obviously crystallizes for a lot of these kids,” he said. “They get it now and can say ‘Okay, I see what a golf course looks like. This is cool.’”
Sophia Li started playing golf when she was six years old. Her father, who works in the financial industry, wanted her older sister to take up the game, but it was Sophia who caught the bug. “I just tagged along and ended up liking the sport more than she did,” Sophia says. “At first, I wasn’t really committed to it, but eventually I grew into liking the tournaments and trying to beat my dad.”
Sophia and her family were aware of the City Parks Foundation and the youth sports programs that it ran in communities across New York City. Her coach, Guy Robinson, who worked with the foundation’s golf program, encouraged Sophia to come aboard. Sophia credits the program for helping her improve her short game, which was ultimately the x-factor in her victory in the Drive, Chip and Putt finals.
Her success in the program catapulted her to compete on some of the best courses in the New York Metropolitan area, including Bethpage and Winged Foot for 2019 Drive, Chip & Putt qualifying. But until this year Sophia had never made it to the finals. She said her improved mental game also made a difference.
“I needed to do better at keeping calm on the course and making sure I don’t have any emotional breakdowns,” she said.
On the day before Sophia competed, she attended the first-ever Augusta National Women’s Amateur. On the day after, she hung around to watch the Monday practice round at the Masters. “It was definitely inspiring and I want to play in the women’s amateur in the future,” she said. “I want to play on the LPGA tour as a professional so I can actually experience the game more and inspire other girls to play golf.”
Remarkably, Sophia wasn’t the only Queens golfer to make the leap from the City Parks Foundation program to Augusta National in 2019. She was joined by 7-year-old Alexa Phung of Forest Hills, who finished sixth in her age group.
Alexa picked up golf a couple of years ago, when she began playing at a local pitch-and-putt with her older sister Amelie and father Tam. Her father had learned about the City Parks Foundation’s golf program from a fellow parent and enrolled Amelie, which led her to join the PGA Junior League. Alexa soon followed in her sister’s footsteps, joining both the city golf program and PGA team.
A year ago Alexa and Amelie were invited to Trump Doral in Miami to compete in the Doral/Publix Junior Golf Classic, which features top players from around the world. Because of the travel and lodging expenses, the Phungs were unsure whether they wanted to make the trip. “But then City Parks came to us and was like, ‘Hey, you know, maybe we can help pay for one of the girls and then you guys can make it down there,’” Tam says. Good thing they did — Alexa won her age group.
Alexa and her sister also competed in the U.S. Kids Golf European Championship last year. After both girls finished in the top five in their age groups, tournament organizers were stunned to hear where the Phungs hailed from. “They were shocked to hear we weren’t from Florida or from California,” Tam said. “It was like the most shocking thing from them when they heard you’re from New York.”
In April, Alexa carried the family flag to Augusta by becoming the youngest-ever player to compete in the finals. That trip also might not have happened without the City Parks Foundation. “The cool thing about the city program is that it allowed an average family like us to experience the Masters and Augusta National Golf Club at a personal level,” Tam said. “That program helped us get here to this event. I don’t think [Alexa] will ever forget that moment.”
Unlike Sophia, both Alexa and Amelie are unsure if they’ll pursue a professional golf career. Tam thinks it’s possible, but he knows that his two daughters have interests beyond golf. Amelie, who is in sixth grade, hopes to play golf in college.
Alexa has another goal in mind.
“Maybe I can just go around the world and just check out some cool golf courses,” she says. “I think that would be fun.”
Thanks to her appearance in the DC&P finals, Alexa can already check off one of those bucket-list courses, which pleases Silverman. He and his team take great pride in how juniors like Sophia and the Phung sisters have taken their games from the public parks of New York City to some of the world’s best courses.
“They’re emblematic of a whole chapter and group of kids who in the last five years have really started to excel at golf here in New York,” Silverman said. “If you go back five years ago, I’d say the idea of a kid from New York City not only just winning some PGA [Junior League] tournaments, but playing in PGA tournaments, would’ve been a lot less likely. Now we have kids in New York who are consistently winning them. I don’t want to say winning is everything for me, but it is obviously an indication of that we’re doing something right.”
Still, the program’s primary goal continues to be introducing golf to the city’s youth and exposing them to a different sport that they might not have had a chance to play otherwise — and that above all, Silverman says, is what makes CityParks Golf successful.
“I can tell you that there isn’t a year that goes by where I don’t hear new stories from my staff, from kids who have been in the program and who’ve come back, from parents who have thanked us that we changed their life in that way,” he says. “We made a difference and we gave them a sport for life that they’re always going to play.”