UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Magnolia Lane awaits—a dream come true

Matai Naqica will compete in Drive, Chip & Putt finals

In his dreams, Matai Naqica (pronounced nuh-GEE-thuh—with a hard “G”) is headed down Magnolia Lane, about to compete at fabled Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters.

Magnolia Lane: the route traveled by the immortals—Jones, Hogan, Snead . . . Arnie, Nicklaus, Tiger—and every other champion and player in Masters history. What teenager who’s serious about golf doesn’t picture themselves there at some point?

Next April 3, this young golfer’s dreams will become reality.

That’s when Matai, who lives in the Cherry Creek School District but is a sophomore at Columbine High School, will participate in the 2022 Drive, Chip & Putt national finals to be held at Augusta National on the Sunday that begins Masters Week. 

“The feeling of going to Augusta is really extraordinary. I can’t wait to go there,” he said the day he qualified. It was his seventh and last chance, and his fifth time as a regional finalist as he moved through the age groups.  

Drive, Chip & Putt was established in 2013 as a free, nationwide junior golf development program by The Masters Tournament, the United States Golf Association and The PGA of America. It tests the driving, chipping and putting skills of boys and girls 7 to 15, using a point system based on driving distance and accuracy, chipping precision and putting ability. 

In regional qualifying, which brings together players from multiple states, everyone hits three of each: drives, chips and putts. The drives are down a “fairway” that’s 40 yards wide. Drives must finish within the fairway to score points, which are determined by laser-measured distance. Chips at the scoring hole are from 10-15 yards and are scored based on rings that denote proximity to the hole. Putts are from six, 15 and 30 feet, and are scored based on closeness to the hole. Holing a chip or a putt earns the highest possible score, 25 points.

Competing in the 14-15 age group, Matai, 15, earned his trip to the home of Amen Corner by amassing 163 points, 12 more than the runner-up in the field of a dozen. That was despite hitting his first drive out of bounds.       

“I used my 2-iron just to find the fairway,” he said of his second and third tee shots, which measured 250 and 285 yards.  Living up to the old golf adage “drive for show, putt for dough,” Matai made up for the errant drive with his short game, including sinking one of his three chips. “Chipping was probably what got me into Augusta,” he said.

Matai, a tall but thin young man who, no doubt, will grow taller and add pounds, already has been playing golf for two-thirds of his life. 

“When I was three years old,” he recalls, “I was watching TV (cartoons) and my dad was switching the channel. He switched to the Golf Channel, and I just didn’t want to stop watching it.” (He said he screamed and fussed, as three-year-olds do, when his dad switched back to cartoons.)

Matai ‘s grandfather bought him his first golf club when he was three, and Matai played his first round when he was five. He broke 50 that time, from the junior tees on an executive course that has since closed. He began working with a swing coach at age seven and has continued to this day. He hopes to return to Augusta someday as a Masters participant.

On his first trip to Augusta, Matai will be accompanied by his parents, Brian and Susan; the coach of his Columbine team, Cory Olsen, who has known Matai since birth and was the reason Matai open-enrolled out-of-district; his Columbine teammates; and his swing coach. In addition to the Drive, Chip & Putt event, he hopes to play Augusta’s Par Three course and, with his entourage, take in one of the pros’ practice rounds. Then the Columbine team will go to South Carolina for a week of Myrtle Beach golf.

The finals will be shown on cable television coast to coast by Golf Channel. That’s a big deal to Matai.

“I get to be on national television,” he says. “I’ll try to bomb a drive 300 in front of the cameras.”

Matai was born in the U.S.—on the Fourth of July, no less—but his family’s roots are in Fiji, home of PGA Tour star Vijay Singh, winner of 34 pro tournaments including three majors (two U.S. Opens and a Masters). Matai isn’t expecting to meet Singh next April, even though past Masters champions are included in the field. But he is hoping to meet his favorite pro.

“I really want to meet Tony Finau,” he said, “because he’s my favorite golfer. He’s Polynesian (an American, but his family is from the Kingdom of Tonga, a chain of 169 islands in the South Pacific), and he hits the ball a long way, like me. I’ll probably ask him how to hit fairways, because I can’t do that right now. That’s my main problem.”

Hitting two shots out of bounds, in fact, may have cost Matai the Colorado Boys 5A High School State Golf Tournament individual championship last week. He was in contention as he made the turn on the second day at Colorado Springs Country Club. But he took a nine on the 10th hole and shot 45 on the back nine to tie for 25th.

“It didn’t go as planned,” was all he said.

He’ll get two more cracks at the high school state tournament. But first, he has a date at Augusta National.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.