Whitehall fourth-grader taking a swing at Drive, Chip and Putt finals
Standing in front of the family television, Michael Quallich watched as the pro golfers stood on the vibrant green course and took a swing.
Michael, at just 2 years old, copied the move with his own tiny plastic club.
In that moment, his parents, Justin and Melissa, both recreational golfers, knew there was something special about their son’s swing.
“It was perfect,” Justin Quallich said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow!’ I think I went out and got him a club the next day.”
For the last seven years, Michael, now 9, has been honing his golf skills. He’s often the youngest one to participate and has even been interviewed on the Golf Channel after his latest big win.
In September, Michael finished first in his age group at the PGA Drive, Chip and Putt program’s regional conference held at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, sending him on to the finals at Augusta National during Masters week in April 2019. He is one of 10 boys ages 7 to 9 years old from across the country to advance to the finals.
The Drive, Chip and Putt program is a joint initiative of the Masters Tournament, United States Golf Association and The PGA of America. In the tournament, students score points for their drive, chip and putt.
“It’s a big challenge to go there and be on TV and in front of everyone in the stands,” he said.
But, that’s a challenge he’s ready to face.
“It’s going to be like any round, just with nicer things around you,” he said.
Michael loves to practice and does so most days. Before school, he goes out in the backyard of his Whitehall home to chip a bucket before he heading to his fourth-grade classes at Whitehall Elementary in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.
Michael can’t recall his earliest days of playing — he was too little to remember — but dad says as soon as he could hit a ball all the way across the yard, it was on to Par 3 courses.
For his fourth birthday, Michael got a driver and putter.
He would frequent Cool Springs where everybody knew him by name.
“He hit the ball well enough at that age that people would stand behind him and watch,” Justin said.
At 5, Michael started attending summer camps at TGA Premier Golf in Mt. Lebanon. Per usual, he was the youngest one there. TGA held an after-school camp at McAnnulty Elementary that Michael participated in during kindergarten.
It was there he met the head coach of the Baldwin High School boys’ golf team. Michael has been invited to come during the winter months for the last three years to practice with the high school boys.
That’s something he enjoys, he said. When he’s golfing, his quiet personality changes.
“There’s no shyness,” Justin said. “We go to the driving range and we’ll be there for two hours, and one hour of that is spent talking to random people about golf.”
By 7, Michael joined the 8- to 10-year-old TGA league at South Park.
Three years ago, Michael took his first swing at Drive, Chip and Putt. He came in fourth at the local competition, where only the top three move on.
Two years ago, he came in second and could have moved on to the next round. But the family already had a vacation planned and Michael chose to go to Virginia Beach where he could play on his favorite course, Hell’s Point, which he describes as a “big 18-hole course.”
Michael, who can provide details about every place he’s been and how every tournament is scored, smiles when he talks about Hell’s Point, the place he first got to ride in a golf cart at 6 years old. He was so little, though, his feet didn’t touch the ground and he fell out.
This year, Michael came in second at the local competition. In the subregional round, he again came in second.
The family didn’t plan a vacation this time, just in case.
At the regional competition at Muirfield, only the top scorer moved on to the final round and got to go to Augusta National.
“Did we practice a little bit?” Justin asked Michael, who laughed and answered with a hearty, “Yeah!”
Michael was excited and nervous about the competition, but his parents say he never showed it.
They always remind him of “flip flops and bathing suits,” which takes him back to swinging his club in the family backyard while everyone else is swimming in the pool.
The day his family arrived in Dublin, Michael asked his dad to go to the range. It was raining, so Justin held an umbrella over Michael while he practiced for three hours.
He was the only one out there practicing.
After the competition, Michael didn’t think he did too well. But mom and dad reminded him that it was raining for everyone.
The moment the family found out he placed No. 1 and was headed to the big event that airs on TV and where pros often come and watch the little ones, everyone was tears, Melissa said.
“I was just really excited,” Michael said.
Michael has plans to practice a lot before April.
He’s also going to run a mile every Tuesday and Thursday with the Morning Mile at his school.
“Dad and mom say it will help me hit the ball farther,” he said.
When asked where he hopes to take his golf game someday, Michael’s answer is simple: “The pros.” He hopes to go pro by age 20, after playing in college — likely somewhere in Arizona.
“I hope you do. I will do everything I can to help you there, Mike,” Melissa said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.