By By Johnathan McGinty | Photos Courtesy of Fleishman Hillard
It’s possible that “destiny” might be a tad too strong of a term to chronicle the golf journey of young Lyla Hawker.
Sure, her room is filled with the usual trappings of childhood — like toys, books and stuffed animals — but it’s also overflowing with various medals and trophies, including a signed pin flag from legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus.
That’s because nine-year-old Lyla has already accomplished more than most golfers three and four times her age, punctuated by earning a spot in this year’s finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Augusta National Golf Club.
These accolades are surely the product of hard work, innate talent and family support. Yet, when you listen to Lyla and her family talk about the journey, it’s tempting to try and connect some of the dots and believe that all of her youthful success was simply meant to be.
Consider her mother, Jessi Hawker, learning about Augusta’s First Tee program while pregnant with Lyla. Despite being a military family that has moved no fewer than four times in the past 12 years, she made a mental note to explore it as a place for her children to grow, learn and develop if they were fortunate enough to stay in the Garden City.
Then, while Jessi was still pregnant with Lyla, her husband, Justin, got to attend The Masters for the first time in 2011. Given that Lyla was due just weeks after that fabled first week in April — and because cell phones are famously forbidden on the grounds of Augusta National during tournament week — Justin made sure to find a bank of payphones to check in every two hours to see how mom-and-baby-to-be were doing.
Maybe all that discussion about golf, First Tee and Augusta National was simply a harbinger of what was to come for the Hawkers, now a family of six. If nothing else, it set the stage for the passions — and talents — of their children, especially Lyla. Almost immediately after signing up to participate in the First Tee program, the pint-sized hacker made a lasting impression on her first day of PLAYer class.
“They went out on the course to hit, and the first time she ever hit the ball she made a hole-in-one,” Jessi laughed. “Literally the whole place came over and screamed and jumped up and down. I couldn’t believe it, and she couldn’t believe it. I tell my husband we should have known right there!”
Destiny? Fate? Maybe.
It certainly put Lyla on a path where golf would be an influential part of her family’s life, winding its way to this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt finals.
Launched in 2013 as a joint venture by the Masters, the United States Golf Association and the Professional Golfers Association of America, Drive, Chip and Putt focuses on developing some core fundamentals of the game through a series of qualifying events across the country. Junior golfers compete against each other in basic skills competitions, hoping to earn the highest score and advance to the next round with all eyes on that prized slot the Sunday before the Masters week begins.
Lyla isn’t the only Augusta resident to qualify for this year’s finals as Zane Madison and Hamilton Coleman, both members of Westlake Country Club, will be joining her to compete on Golf Channel in a nationally televised event at Augusta National Golf Club, April 3.
She is unique, however, in the sense that she is the first golfer from First Tee of Augusta to qualify for the national finals of the competition, and Jessi can draw a straight line from the organization’s influence on her oldest daughter to her success on the course.
First Tee uses golf to impart life skills to children, creating learning experiences that aim to build inner strength, self-confidence and resilience to prepare them for any challenges they face on and off the golf course. Those core principles have served Lyla well, instilling in her a quiet confidence that refuses to be rattled, regardless of the pressures any competition might impose on her.
Her mother proudly noted the composure Lyla showed throughout the qualifying rounds of Drive, Chip and Putt. In each of the three stages, she remained cool, calm and confident, winning her age bracket’s putting portion of the competition every time, and winning the final qualifier at Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., to advance to the finals at Augusta National.
Lyla, along with her seven-year-old brother, Wyatt, who also competed in the qualifiers for Drive, Chip and Putt, is largely self-taught, having tagged along with her father at various local courses. Her experiences at First Tee of Augusta provided the necessary focus to sharpen her on-the-course skills, while also equipping her to handle adversity off it.
“That’s what really drew me to First Tee,” Jessi said about the life lessons of the First Tee experience. “I was watching everything they were doing, and they made just as big of a deal on their core values as compared to actually teaching the kids golf. They have kids do homework. They tell them it’s not your parents’ job to keep track of your stuff. They teach them to be responsible and respectful.”
While her father has attended the Masters a few times, Lyla is quick to point out that she’s been “zero times.” Her mother hasn’t had the opportunity to attend either, and she’s excited to be able to set foot on the prestigious course for the first time.
A few weeks before the competition though, the Hawkers were focused on getting everything ready before a big trip to Walt Disney World. Avid fans of the theme park, the family regularly visits and enjoys staying at hotels on property.
But, when pressed on what Lyla is looking more forward to — a visit to see the world’s most famous mouse or a chance to swing a club on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National — she answers with no hesitation: “Augusta!”
Okay, maybe it is destiny.
DRIVE, CHIP AND PUTT
A national skills competition for junior golfers held at Augusta National Golf Club annually the Sunday prior to the Masters. This year, three Augusta-area golfers have reached the finals for the first time. Joining Lyla Hawker in the championship round are two more talented young golfers, both residing in Evans.
Zane Madison (Boys, ages 7-9)
Zane has two brothers, who take credit for getting him interested in golf at the family’s home course in Westlake Country Club. He loves sports of all kinds, particularly basketball, as well as riding dirt bikes. Despite being young, he’s an old soul when it comes to music — he counts Van Halen as his favorite band.
Hamilton Coleman (Boys, ages 12-13)
Hamilton has always had a golf club in his hand, even if it meant swinging a plastic one when he was learning to walk. He’s a veteran of Drive, Chip and Putt, having reached the second round twice before breaking through to earn a spot in this year’s finals. He enjoys working on his game at Westlake Country Club.
Appears in the April 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.