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Clearwater girl to golf in Masters tourney
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Photo courtesy of VANITHA WALKER
Tia Walker plays in a charity scramble tournament at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar. She played with adults and contributed as much as the adults did to her team’s score.
CLEARWATER – While some folks will try for years just to get tickets to the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., a Clearwater 11-year-old gets to compete on the course this year.

Tia Walker has earned an invitation to the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals on Sunday, April 6, which also will be aired live on TV. The championship is a collaboration by the Masters Tournament, the USGA and the PGA of America and is a free, nationwide golf development initiative open to boys and girls ages 7 to 15.

Tia, a fifth-grader at Plato Academy in Palm Harbor, only just started golfing, said her mom, Vanitha Walker.

“It was very surprising and exciting for us because Tia only started golfing a year and a half ago,” Vanitha said. “So in June, she was very new to golf. And she was in the top two, so she advanced.”

After Tia placed second in the local competition in her group – girls ages 10 and 11 – she advanced to the regional competition, which pitted the top two golfers from each of the 10 regions in Florida against each other last August. The fact that Tia was brand new to the sport certainly didn’t hold her back, as she came in first in the competition, which earned her an invitation to the national finals.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Vanitha said. “Many people have been playing for a long time.”

Tia’s parents are golfers, and Vanitha said she and her husband played a lot before Tia and her brother, Adam, 9, were born. When Tia was 9, they took her to the course with them, and Vanitha said she was impressed by how naturally Tia hit the ball, even without ever having had a lesson. They bought her a basic set of clubs and had a few group lessons with The First Tee of Clearwater. After Tia won regionals, they decided she should have some serious lessons so she would feel prepared for nationals. She now trains with PGA professionals Cameron Ross of Countryside Golf Club and Kyaw Htet of Innisbrook Golf Club.

For Tia, she finds golf to be a peaceful sport.

“I like being outside and seeing all the nature and not being cooped up inside,” Tia said. “And also, unless you get whacked in the face, it’s not a very dangerous sport. I like birding and trying to identify all the birds I see. Golfing is good for that because you’re in all different places and courses and it’s all very natural and you get to see a lot of species.”

Tia is a humble young lady and puts the overall experience above the need to win.

“I just want to do my best,” Tia said.

She doesn’t expect to win, but she just hopes that her nerves don’t get the best of her, either.

Tia’s parents are proud of how well Tia has played so far.

“We are very, very proud and are thrilled that she’ll have such an amazing opportunity,” Vanitha said. “And we hope she continues with golf. Because she started so recently and has done so well, when you talk to her instructors, they think that she has a naturally good swing, very talented, so I hope she stays with it. Even recreationally because it is a lifelong sport.”

Vanitha added that her daughter always works hard and is an A student, always on the Principal’s List at her school. Now with golf, that could give her even more opportunities, she said.

The kids will be playing on the same greens that the pros will be playing on later that week, as the invitation-only 2014 Masters Tournament kicks off with practice rounds on Monday, April 7 through Wednesday, April 9 and then the actual tournament on Thursday, April 10 through Sunday, April 13.

In the youth competition, they will get two drives, two chips, and three putts. The putts will be at three different distances – 6 feet, 15 feet and 30 feet.

“In the regionals they did averages,” Vanitha said, “at least for drives. They had three drives and they used the score of each drive and that gave them points. The same for chipping. They had three chips. It was how close to the pin that you get for the chipping portion. For the driving it’s are you in bounds, and how far did you drive? For putting, it’s how close to the cup do you get or do you actually sink it? And Tia, at the regionals, she actually sunk her 30-foot putt, and her 6-foot putt. The putting is her strongest suit.”

At Augusta, she will get two drives, and they will use the longest in-bounds drive, Vanitha said, and she will be ranked among the 11 kids in her age group. The chips will be an average of both chips, she said.

As Tia gets older, she said she’d love for golf to remain a part of her life.

“I’d like to get a (golf) scholarship, and then I’d like to become a pro and win some money by doing that,” Tia said. “But I think I’ll probably just get a regular job and play on weekends.”

Tia admits it would be a lot of fun for golf to be her full-time job, but she has other interests as well for when she grows up. She might like to run a pet shop, she said, and she’s also come up with ideas for a nature park and designs for golf courses.

In addition to golfing and birding, Tia also loves reading. She is in the middle of reading The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and she also loved reading The Inheritance Cycle fantasy series by Christopher Paolini.

Tia also plays piano and likes classical music the best. Her

favorite composers are Ludwig vanBeethovenandAndré Tchaikowsky.

The Drive, Chip and Putt Championship will air on the Golf Channel, which is Channel 1154 on Bright House Networks. It will air live at 8 a.m., Sunday, April 6. A total of 88 junior golfers from across the United States and Canada will compete.
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