Ask Rishi Kejriwal to pinpoint a strength of his golf game and he’ll tell you putting is high on the list.
With that bit of information, it’s no surprise when Kejriwal, 14, a freshman at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas, then tells you his favorite Champions Tour golfer. It wouldn’t be Ben Crenshaw, would it?
Of course it would.
“I’ve seen him play a lot of tournaments,” Kejriwal said. “He’s a very nice guy and helps out at The First Tee.”
Kejriwal, Lauren Welch and Chase Pursiful are in a select group of young golfers representing The First Tee who will tee it up this week at the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. They are among the 81 juniors with elite golf games and academic achievements to match who earned the privilege. Just days before their arrival in the Monterey Peninsula their sentiments are similar.
They are eager, excited and determined to turn the golf experience into a life experience they will never forget.
The Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach is an official Champions Tour event. The 81 participants, representing 54 chapters of The First Tee, were selected by a national panel of judges that evaluated participants’ playing ability and comprehension of the life skills and character education learned through their involvement with The First Tee.
The young golfers are asked to write and file essays, answer an extensive series of questions about their personal lives and their golf. Being selected isn’t a gimme. It requires a commitment of time, effort, desire and discipline.
“It was worth it,” Pursiful said. “Every bit of it.”
The junior golfers will be paired with 81 Champions Tour players and 162 amateurs in a pro-junior competition at Pebble Beach Golf Links and Del Monte Golf Course.
Welch, 17, is home-schooled. Her mother was looking for activities in which she could participate outside of the home. They came across an article in a Nashville newspaper about inexpensive and fun things to do. The First Tee was on the list.
“I fell in love with the game,” said Welch, who began playing golf at age 8 at The First Tee of Nashville.
“I’m very excited. A lot of people think it’s about the location but I’m really excited about the people I’m going to see and meet. I will have a chance to see some of my really great friends and meeting tour players will be special.”
Welch, who plays to an 8.2 handicap index, has always had a beautiful swing but she won’t go so far as to call herself a natural. Her improvement has been the product of hard work.
“I’ve always been told I had a great swing but I haven’t put a whole lot of work into it until a couple of years ago,” Welch said.
But it’s more than golf that she’s learned during the process.
“Golf has taught me a lot about life,” she said. “You go through life skills – how to meet people, how to deal with adversity. Golf comes into that a lot. You learn when you have three bad holes in a row that you can come back and have three good ones. In golf, you pick yourself up and push through whatever comes your way.”
There is a mix of emotions on the eve of the big event – maybe the biggest so far in their young lives.
“I’m nervous but I’m excited,” said Pursifull, 16. “And I’m shocked to have made it.”
He should not be. Pursiful has demonstrated excellence in his golf (1.9 handicap index) and academics. He’s a record-holder in The First Tee of Pine Mountain. He can’t wait for the opportunity to learn from the game’s best and most experienced players.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to know,” he said.
What one question would he ask his Champions Tour playing partner?
“How to take the good with the bad,” Pursifull said. “How to cope when you play bad and how do you improve?”
Pursifull already does nicely in that regard. He is even-tempered on the golf course – no club-slamming, no histrionics.
“It never makes anything better,” he said.
Pursiful will also be watching carefully to see how the Champions Tour players deal with short game issues. His ball-striking is sharp but Pursiful acknowledges the short game needs work.
“My drives and my irons are a strength,” he said. “I wish it was my short game but I’m working on it.”
The opportunity to learn from the greats is a priority for Kejriwal, from The First Tee of Greater Austin. He recently experienced Pebble Beach for the first time, not as a player but as a tourist.
“We just visited, took a cart around the course and looked at different shots,” said Kejriwal, who plays to a 1.7 handicap index. “It was really cool. I liked the 17th and 18th holes. They are so majestic. And No. 7 is very nice.
“I expect to learn, basically, tips on how (the Champions Tour players) play, how they act on the course, what steps they follow. I’ve gone out to the AT&T Championship. Good shot, bad shot, they are always positive."