John Mason has attended the Masters a number of times before. But this year’s visit to the historic grounds of Augusta National Golf Club was unlike any other for him.
Mason, JC Golf’s Director of Instruction at Encinitas Ranch Golf Course, got a front-row seat to watch one of his students, Jay Leng Jr., win his division of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship National Finals, which was held at Augusta National on the Sunday prior to the start of the year’s first major.
“He’s quite a talent,” said Mason of the 9-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe.
Leng, a fourth grader at Solana Santa Fe Elementary, relied on his short game to carry him as his tee shots fell short of the longer drivers in the competition. His combined distance from the hole on two putts was 2 feet, 2 inches, an effort that got him into a three-way playoff. He then rammed in a lengthy putt on the 18th hole to win the Boys 7-9 division.
“I never thought I would have this opportunity after my horrible driving,” Leng told a reporter for the Golf Channel.
The road to Augusta began last summer with local qualifying held at more than 250 sites around the country. The top three scorers from each division in local qualifying advanced to 49 sub-regional qualifiers in August. Two juniors in each division then competed at the regional level – the California regional was held at Torrey Pines in September – and the top finisher there earned a spot in the National Finals. Leng was among 80 youngsters, ages 7-15, from 30 states and Canada who made it to Augusta. Three other kids from San Diego also advanced.
“It’s brutal getting in this thing,” said Mason, who works with Leng at Encinitas Ranch. “And you have to be on. Jay hits the ball very well. He’s very consistent.”
As part of the competition, players had a chance to meet some Masters competitors and legends of the game. Leng was hoping for a chance to meet Bubba Watson, his favorite player. But he had to settle for three-time Masters champ Nick Faldo.
“Jay didn’t want anyone but Bubba to give him the trophy, but Faldo was a nice consolation,” Mason said. “He kept asking his dad who (Faldo) was.”
Mason has been working with Leng since he was 6 and said the youngster loves the game. And it shows. In the past year, he won his age division in the U.S. Kids at Pinehurst, the San Diego Junior Amateur and San Diego Junior Masters. He was Player of the Year in his division of San Diego Junior Golf.
“People ask me why he’s so good,” Mason said. “Well, he has a club in his hand everyday for one. He loves to play, has a great attitude and he’s having fun.”
Marc Figueroa is a freelance writer who has been covering golf in San Diego for more than 20 years.