AUGUSTA — Everybody wants a chance to get inside the hallowed gates of Augusta National Golf Club and watch the best players in the world ply their trade in the Masters Tournament. Champion golfers are no exception.

That’s why it wasn’t surprising to see USC Aiken golfer Matt Atkins looking as wide eyed as any other patron as he took in the action at the putting green and driving range during Monday’s practice round.

Atkins was a Division II PING First-Team All-American for the Pacers last season and won medalist honors at this year’s Palmetto Intercollegiate. Atkins and his USCA teammates as well as the rest of their fellow participants in the recently-completed Augusta State Invitational gained access to a practice round. For Atkins, it was a chance to observe what the pros do to get ready for a daunting championship tournament.

“It’s good to see the little drills they do to prepare for a major championship,” said Atkins, making his third trip to the Masters. “I’m observing everybody, how they warm up, how they approach the course.”

Atkins said he and his fellow Pacers were on the course by 9:30 in the morning and staked out an area between holes No. 6 and 7 to take in the action. Although the Pacers finished 15th in the Augusta State Invitational, Atkins is optimistic about their chances in the Peach Belt Conference championship in less than two weeks. He said he hopes that will propel USCA back into the national championship tournament in pursuit of the programs fourth NCAA title.

“We feel like we can compete each week and want to make the most of the opportunity,” said Atkins, who’s definitely enjoying the chance to return to Augusta National. “We get to see guys play where we want to play one day. It’s great to see the most prestigious golf course in the world.”

As for his prediction, Atkins said it’s hard to handicap such a talented field of golfers, when any of them are capable of getting hot and winning. But if he could only select one player, Atkins went with crowd favorite and four-time green jacket winner Tiger Woods.

“It’s hard to beat Tiger,” he said of the No. 1 ranked player in the world with three tournament victories already this year.

Child’s play

In an effort to promote interest and participation in golf, the Masters Tournament Foundation, USGA and The PGA of America announced the creation of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, a free nationwide skill competition that will conclude at Augusta National in 2014.

Participants in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship will advance through local and regional qualifiers conducted throughout the U.S. Competitors will be comprised of boys and girls ages 7-15, and they will compete in separate divisions in four age categories. The regional champions will advance to the finals at Augusta National the Sunday before the Masters and will be broadcast by Golf Channel.

“Generations of players have been inspired by the dream of sinking a winning putt on the 18th green at Augusta National,” Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament Foundation, said in a statement. “Now an exciting opportunity exists to make that dream a reality. I am confident that our collective efforts with the USGA and The PGA of America will showcase the talents of kids who already play this game and motivate others to give the sport a try.”

For more information on the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship and how to register, go to

Diamond in the rough

This week’s souvenirs and memories from Augusta National Golf Club may be especially meaningful for Nora Hooks and Blake Goolsby, whose friendship began at the golf course and is now on track for marriage.

The two met in the spring of 2006 in the club’s main gift shop, where Hooks was a cashier and Goolsby was a stocker. She’s now a kindergarten teacher at Redcliffe Elementary School, and he’s an attorney based in Augusta. He popped the question and presented a ring Monday morning, kneeling at the end of the 18th aisle, where she had worked as a teenager. She said yes, and customers and employees in the vicinity broke out in cheers and applause.

Clarke out

Former British Open champion Darren Clarke became the first player to withdraw from this year’s Masters Tournament. Clarke suffered a hamstring injury while on a recent vacation in the Bahamas.

“It is with deep regret that I will not be able to play at Augusta this year,” Clarke said on his website. “Playing in The Masters is one of golf’s greatest pleasures and I am very disappointed to be missing out.”

Clarke has played in the Masters 11 times, and his best finish was when he was eighth in 1998 Giving a hoot

John Daly remains one of the most popular players in professional golf, even if his most successful days are behind the two-time major winner. Daly isn’t in the field for this week’s Masters Tournament and hasn’t qualified to play in Augusta since 2006. But that hasn’t stopped the crowd favorite from making an appearance in the past and this year is no different.

As he has done in the past, Daly once again is making a spectacle of himself. He’s signing autographs and selling merchandise from a motor home parked in front of the Hooters restaurant, less than a mile from prestigious Magnolia Lane, the famed entrance to Augusta National.

If seeing Daly isn’t enough excitement, Hooters of Augusta is also hosting a chicken wing-eating competition at 9 p.m. on Thursday following the first day of this year’s Masters Tournament. It’s a qualifier where professionals and amateurs are invited to compete in a 10-minute, all-you-can-eat contest. First, second and third place finishers will win $500, $300 and $200 cash prizes, as well as a chance to compete in the grand finale event at the original Hooters of Clearwater, Fla. against last year’s winner and top professional eater, Joey Chestnut.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

Staff writer Bill Bengtson contributed to this report.