By Thomas Ehlers
Photos courtesy of Carol Ann Rosenburg
Joseph Morinelli has some big life moments to check off as he approaches 15 years of age, like getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time.
There’s one problem — his chance to win a national title is in the way.
“He is eligible to get his driving permit the day before Drive, Chip & Putt, but he’s going to have to wait,” Carol Ann Rosenburg, Morinelli’s mother says. “We told him he can’t focus on getting his permit, he’ll have to wait.
“He’s got to drive before he can drive.”
Morinelli, born in Augusta but currently residing in Crozet, Va., is one of 80 junior golfers across eight divisions who qualified for the national finals of Drive, Chip & Putt. It is a dream come true for the young linksman who wakes up in the morning with a map of Augusta National Golf Club and the silhouette of a flag from the Masters on his wall.
“It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, a big deal getting to play Augusta National,” Morinelli says. “I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve been wanting to go to Augusta since I started in 2016.”
Drive, Chip & Putt, a joint initiative between the Masters Tournament, the United States Golf Association and the Professional Golf Association of America, started in 2013. Youthful golfers compete in local, sub-regional and regional qualifying events before making it to the finals, which are held at Augusta National on the weekend before the Masters.
During the competition, golfers are scored in the three categories reflected in its name.
First, competitors take three drives into a 40-yard wide fairway, with longer drives in the fairway scoring more points. Next, golfers take three 10-15 yard chip shots onto a green, with shots closer to the pin scoring more points. The final three shots are putts from 6, 15 and 30 feet, with more accurate putts scoring higher point values.
Morinelli’s path to the Garden City began with a third-place finish at the local level — a “slow start” he noted — but good enough to advance to the Richmond Regional Qualifier. He tied for second at the sub-regional level, advancing, thanks to a better-putting score than his opponent. At Oak Hill, Morinelli had his best finish — first — which ultimately clinched a spot in the national championship.
And his trip to Augusta might mean a little more given those familial ties. Not only was Morinelli born in the city, but he got his start with the sticks growing up in the shadow of the world’s most recognizable golf course. Like countless others in the community, the game of golf always was top of mind for him, even more so once tournament week rolled around.
One of his grandfathers worked security at Augusta National, and he credits both of his grandfathers as being instrumental in introducing him to the game.
“Both of my grandpas, they liked to play golf a lot back when they did,” he says. “They wanted me to play, and they would just come over because they lived right down the street. We would just go play in the backyard, just go hit balls around.”
Swinging the club in the backyard led to the love for the sport he has today. Morinelli used to play baseball, but swapped the diamond for the links, focusing more and more on nurturing and developing his golf game. He still has memories from those early days when he was just learning the game.
“My favorite memory was probably with my dad,” Morinelli says. “I started getting into golf when we moved up to Virginia, like really trying to focus on it and play competitively. The first par I had was when I was 10 years old. It was from the red tees, and it was Old Trail Golf Club [in Crozet, Va.].”
He doesn’t hit from the reds anymore. Morinelli made the freshman varsity team at his high school, where he was named to the first-team all-district and helped lead Western Albemarle High School to a second-place finish at the state level.
He’ll have plenty of people rooting for him when he tees up his first ball.
Though 425 miles separate Crozet and Augusta, Rosenberg and Morinelli make the trip to see family and friends occasionally, along with other trips to compete in tournaments at West Lake Country Club, Forest Hills Golf Course and Bartram Trail Golf Club. One family friend, in addition to cheering him on, lent Morinelli a Scotty Cameron putter — the definitive standard for the short game — for the competition.
“It’s exciting to be able to go back to Augusta knowing you were born in Augusta and you lived there, spent a huge amount of your time there and made a lot of friends,” Rosenburg says. “He has all of these people that are going to be watching him from the community, which is so exciting.”
The family’s Yorkie, Moose, will be there to support Morinelli, too.
Rosenburg has taken her son to tournaments, practices and other events through the years. She knows how big the stage is, but she also knows the work her son puts in and the ability he possesses.
“I am so excited for this opportunity,” she says. “It’s the chance of a lifetime. When we’re at these tournaments and if we’re playing in Georgia, thinking and joking about ‘Gosh, could you play at Augusta National, could you get into Drive, Chip & Putt,’ and it was a dream. To see it become reality is just so exciting for us.”
In the weeks leading up to the Drive, Chip & Putt finale, Morinelli will continue his regimen of hitting the range or a course three to four times a week and a tournament on the weekends. He keeps the scorecard from his win at regionals on his bedroom wall, a reminder that his job is not yet finished.
He’s come a long way, though. Morinelli admits his first experience with Drive, Chip & Putt in 2016 wasn’t that good. His game wasn’t as polished, and his scores weren’t at the top of the leaderboard as they are today. Now, seven years later, he has the chance to become a national champion, and Rosenburg has seen how far her son has come.
“You can’t buy it, you have to earn it,” Rosenberg says. “It’s just so exciting to see he earned this.”
Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta Magazine