3 Mass Golf Juniors Earn Augusta Experience - MASSGOLF

Mass Golfers Champa Visetsin, Abby Zhu & Willow Ruel Competing In Drive, Chip & Putt National FinalS At Augusta National

By Steve Derderian
sderderian@massgolf.org

Whether it’s their first time or not, any golfer getting to compete on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National is the thrill of a lifetime. This year, three junior golfers from Massachusetts will get to showcase their skills on the eve of Masters week.

For the second straight year, Sudbury’s Champa Visetsin, 13, (Youth on Course) will represent Massachusetts in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals on Sunday, April 3. This year she’ll have some local company as Andover’s Abby Zhu, 14, (Indian Ridge) and Mattapoisett’s Willow Ruel, 10, (The Bay Club) also advanced through the Local, Sub-Regional, and Regional Qualifying stages to make it to Augusta.

The competition features four age groups ranging from players 7-15 years old, with 10 finalists in both boys and girls categories. In total, 80 kids will take six swings each — two in each category — and finish on the same 18th green that will see a Masters champion crowned next weekend. In addition to a hotel stay, they’ll practice and attend a welcome dinner on Saturday, receive their uniforms for competition, and get practice-round tickets for the Masters.

“It feels great to be going back to Augusta,” said Visetsin, who is moving up to the age 12-13 category this year. (Players compete in the age group in which they qualify in the year prior.) “It’s such a great experience being on the legendary grounds. I’m going to try to be less nervous because it messes me up. Hopefully it will be a little less startling when I see the cameras.”

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Champa Visetsin hits a chip during the 2021 Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals at Augusta National. (Contributed)

A RETURN TRIP

Last year, Visetsin finished T7 in her group but was the only player to make the putt and earn all 10 points for the category. Though she’s armed with a new set of clubs, she’s kept the old putter in the bag and is hoping to see improvement across the board.

“I’ve definitely been working more on all parts of my game,” she said. “It’s just been more continuous practice so I don’t slip in any of the categories. Hopefully it pays off this year.”

Last year, Visetsin also got a special send-off from Rockland native Megan Khang, who is Visetsin’s favorite female golfer. “It was beyond amazing. I really look up to Megan. To have her send a video message and sort of talk to me, I was so grateful and so happy to see that she took the time to wish me luck. It was a great motivation.”

And though Visetsin played in this last year, she’s yet to experience one particular staple of the Masters experience: trying the pimento cheese sandwich. “I probably will try it this time around. I’m not a fan of cheese, but maybe that will turn my opinion around.”

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF

Abby Zhu is on the verge of her greatest golf accomplishment yet: Playing in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals. Undeterred after three previous attempts came up short, Zhu decided to stick with it and is now getting to live out a dream.

“I was apprehensive about signing up for it this year, but I do not regret changing my mind,” Zhu said. “When you start, you think it would be cool to go to Augusta but you don’t really know if you’re going to get there because there are so many rounds. But now actually getting there, it doesn’t feel real. I’m really nervous but I’m mostly excited.”

Of the three players from Massachusetts, Zhu perhaps has the best competitive record. Last year she won the New Hampshire Girls’ Junior Amateur (she’s also a member at Windham CC in NH) and finished runner-up in the Mass Girls’ Junior Amateur (Junior-Mite Division). But winning the Regional Qualifier at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut was truly the highlight of the season as she chipped in and holed out one of the putts.

“I think with all the competition experience that I had built that entire year, I felt like I didn’t have that much pressure to qualify,” Zhu said. “I feel like I’m a better golfer than I was before, and I think that kind of helped me.”

Abby Zhu competes in the 2021 Mass Girls’ Junior Amateur at Orchards Golf Club. Zhu will make her first trip to Augusta National for the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals on Sunday, April 3. (David Colt, file)

Zhu’s favorite PGA Tour player is Collin Morikawa, which makes sense because both players have excellent short games. While she draws inspiration from the pros, Zhu said she doesn’t emulate her game on anybody, rather just focusing on improving her own technique.

Though most of her practice has been relegated to indoor sessions on the mat, Zhu was able to travel to Florida last month to get in some on-course practice. She says she’s working hard on hitting driver and is hoping to stick with her fellow competitors as closely as possible.

According to her profile on the DCP website, Zhu aspires to be a writer. But in the meantime, she gets to write her own story with this experience at one of golf’s finest venues.

“I never really expected to go to Augusta myself,” Zhu said. “Now that I get to go it feels like crazy, and I’m just really excited to meet a lot of people.”

THIS ‘RUELS’!

Willow Ruel may be the youngest of the Massachusetts players represented in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals, but she already has a career goal set: become a professional hockey player.

For the time being, she’s also got a promising future with golf, too.

A member at The Bay Club at Mattapoisett, Ruel won the Local Qualifier at her home course, followed by a victory at LeBaron Hills Country Club and then clinching her spot with a 1-point victory at TPC River Highlands.

“I’m excited, but I’m kind of nervous,” Ruel told The Standard-Times newspaper in an article published this week. 

Willow Ruel will compete in the Girls 10-11 group in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals. (Drive, Chip & Putt)

Ruel got her start in golf at age 3 and started playing in DCP events as soon as she was eligible. She currently plays for the PGA Jr. League team at The Bay Club, and has a tremendous support system, which includes her father, Jon, grandfather, Papa (Jon) Ruel, and Bay Club golf professional Ben Egan.

“A couple of my clubs are sawed-off because I got some of my dad’s clubs,” Ruel told The Wanderer in an article from November. “I’ve got a 52 (-degree) iron, a Scotty Cameron.” But her favorite, “My 6 iron.”

Of the three aspects of the competition, Ruel said chipping is her favorite, and she’s spent countless hours perfecting her stroke.

“I feel like you’re in one place and you don’t have to hit it really hard,” she told The Standard-Times. “Putting is my strength. I practice driving a lot.”

No matter how they finish on Sunday, Visetsin, Ruel and Zhu, have the achievement of advancing to the final stage out of over 5,000 who tried to qualify. Each girl is also part of the next wave of passionate junior golfers.

With enough hard work, perhaps you’ll see them back at Augusta in a few years for the Augusta Women’s National Amateur, currently underway this week.