Masters welcomes young fans

Four-year-old Hughes Threlkeld from Vidalia, Ga., looks at a start time sheet with his father during the first round of the 2008 Masters on Thursday. Rob Carr, The Associated Press

By Nancy Armour

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Boy, does Browning Benton have a story for his pals when he goes back to school.

“I got to see Tiger Woods,” the 8-year-old gushed Thursday. “Up close!”

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At the Masters no less.

The best part? His grandfather didn’t have to pay a thing to get him in. Well, aside from that barbecue sandwich Browning ate for lunch and the big bag of souvenirs his grandfather was carrying.

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    Augusta National is hosting quite possibly the coolest play date ever this year, letting youngsters 8 to 16 in for free as long as they come with a paying patron. Toughest ticket in the sports world? It’s child’s play for the teen-and-‘tween set thanks to the new Junior Pass Program.

    “That’s one of the single best things I ever saw,” three-time Masters champion – and very proud grandfather – Gary Player said. “The youth of the nation are trustees of posterity. These are your future golfers.”

    When Larry Roberson heard about the program, he immediately made plans to take Browning, his oldest grandson. Browning started hitting golf balls when he was 2, and it was Roberson who took him to play his first nine holes.

    “This is his first tournament, and the first tournament he came to was the Masters,” Roberson said as Browning sat in front of him near the second green. “It’s amazing. It’s very exciting.”

    Industry reports indicate the number of U.S. golfers has decreased in recent years, and Masters chairman Billy Payne has made it a priority to reverse that trend. Getting kids hooked on the game is the easiest way.

    The Royal & Ancient has been admitting juveniles to the British Open for free the last few years when they’re accompanied by an adult, and Payne decided a similar initiative would work at Augusta National.

    Under the Junior Pass Program, each Masters tournament badge holder is allowed to bring one child free of charge. The Masters and British Open are the only majors that allow kids in free.

    Despite the new policy, don’t expect Amen Corner to be the site of a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party anytime soon. After all, this is still Augusta National. But the place had a definitive bounce to it as little people – mostly boys, but a few girls – mixed in with the genteel patrons who’ve been coming here for decades.

    Golf Mini-Mes arrived looking spit-shined and polished in polos and khakis and clutching an adult’s hand so they wouldn’t get lost in the crowds.

    “I thought it was the best thing they’ve ever done,” said David Clark, who brought his 9-year-old son, also named David. “I’ve been trying to talk him into playing golf and he’s never been interested. … Now that he’s come out here, he’s already asking if we can go play.”

    “All the clubs you go to are making their golf courses longer, so all the costs are going up and up,” Player said. “Golf is going to have to do a lot of thinking in the future. That’s why we need a lot of young people to be playing golf.”