Willow Ruel is busier right now with ice hockey and soccer than she is with golf, but the 11-year-old from Mattapoisett will focus on golf come spring because she is among 10 players in the 10-11 age group to qualify for the national finals of the Drive, Chip, & Putt competition that begins on April 3, 2022 at Augusta National.
The Old Hammondtown School fifth grader qualified for the national finals with a winning performance in the regional final held on September 25 at the TPC River Highlands course in Cromwell, Connecticut.
“A couple of my clubs are sawed-off because I got some of my dad’s clubs. I’ve got a 52 (-degree) iron, a Scotty Cameron,” said Willow, but her favorite: “My 6 iron.”
Not many children even know what a Scotty Cameron is, but her father broke many hearts when he shortened one of those ever-popular putters. “I had three of them, so she got one of them, and she loves it,” said Jon Ruel Jr.
Last week Willow was about to get professionally fitted for the first time, and it would be for a Titleist driver. She was already on her second driver, fashioned by her golf-loving grandfather, Dr. Jon Ruel Sr. When asked what she had been hitting off the tee, she answered matter of factly, “I have no clue.”
Golf is far from a be-all, end-all in the Ruel home. Willow’s brother, Jackson, 14, is a freshman at Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech where he plays basketball and baseball (and golfs for fun), and she has a younger sister, Fiona, 9, who is a fourth grader at Old Hammondtown.
With a busy schedule of children’s activities, including summer sports, 100-percent attendance to the PGA Kids team competition is not realistic for Willow, so her parents keep her schedule manageable with a healthy mixture befitting a child her age. Her father considers the family’s approach “pretty laid back. … She plays so many sports, we can’t make it all.”
Bay Club teaching professional Ben Egan applauds the Ruel family’s broad approach to Willow’s experiences, including sports.
“Golf’s not number one for her right now. She practices a lot, working on her short game, chipping, and putting, and will play a round here or there,” he said. “I think she’s just a good athlete. I think the fact that she’s involved in so many other sports … it’s crucial to be involved in other sports in the development of an athlete. They will make you better in your individual sports.”
Willow entered her first Drive, Chip, & Putt competition, golf’s version of football’s longstanding Punt, Pass, & Kick competition, in 2017 at age 5 at the Bay Club, where her grandparents Jon Sr. and Joan are charter members. In the competition, players make three drives, three chips, and three putts.
“They award you for putts and chips. Driving is negatable in the points scheme because they can’t hit it far. They can only hit it, like, 150, 160 (yards),” Ruel Jr. explained. “For their age, there’s nobody really killing it, so it comes down to the mental fortitude of chipping and putting.”
As the old saying goes, drive for show and putt for dough.
“I thought I was not going to do good on the chipping, but I almost made one in, and I got a 50 (score) on chipping and a 50 on putting,” said Willow, who obviously enjoys putting the biscuit in the basket and putting good numbers on the board.
In hockey, she skates at center or right wing and in soccer she is a striker. “I do remember putting one in the hole with my pitching wedge,” she recalled. “I was right in front of the hole, and it was in a PGA game. … It was at Acushnet (River Valley GC), and I chipped it up and I got a two on a par four.”
According to Egan, Willow’s chipping and putting improved substantially in 2021, thanks to practice. “With her grandpa, they’d spend hours down in our short-game area,” he said. “Willow’s just about maxed out on how far she can hit it with her size (5 feet tall) … Willow’s actually driven it really well.”
When Drive, Chip, & Putt began with local competitions, over 5,000 children were competing. Now it’s down to 10 in each age group, and those finalists and their families will be feted to a special week as Augusta, Georgia gears up for the first major of the golf calendar.
The national finals will include a hotel stay for the players and their immediate families, a welcome dinner the night before sponsored by the Masters, the PGA, and USGA, practice at Augusta National and nearby River Bend CC, special regionally representative uniforms for competition, and practice-round tickets for the Masters.
Pressure is something parents tend to feel more than their kids, and Jenn Risio Ruel, Willow’s mother, was no exception during the regional competition in Connecticut. She recalled Willow looking back at her before the chipping event and saying, “Mom, don’t worry about it. I got it.”
In a constantly changing world, children prove themselves to be resilient, and Willow didn’t bat an eyelash when the last two school years were turned inside out by the coronavirus pandemic. “I kind of liked hybrid (learning) last year,” she said, because it allowed her to “stay in my PJ’s all day.”
Willow is the second Bay Club member to reach the Drive, Chip, & Putt nationals, following John Hiller who made it to August National in 2015. “I don’t know how many clubs in the country have had two kids who have moved on to the finals,” said Egan. “And they’re both great kids, so even better.”
By Mick Colageo