CLEARWATER — Wearing sky blue, her favorite color, Tia Walker straightens one elbow and loosens the other one. Her head is down, her eyes fixed on a spot just a few feet from her. Her long arms gracefully power her seven-iron through the golf ball, which gently hits the bottom of the cup on the practice green at Countryside Country Club.
Tia, 11, is something of a golf prodigy. She can drive the ball 150 yards. She can sink a 30-foot putt. And now she is getting ready to play the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club, a feat many duffers dream of, as part of the Drive, Chip and Putt Challenge Championship on Sunday. All this within a year and a half of taking up the sport.
"My parents introduced me to (golf)," Tia said. "And I liked being outside."
A fifth-grader at Plato Academy in Palm Harbor, Tia likes science and reading — she gets straight A's. She is really into series books like Hunger Games and Inheritance Cycle. She plays piano, and her favorite pieces to perform are by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. She likes birding and the outdoors.
Tia first went with her mother to a golf range when she was 9. Vanitha Walker was surprised at her daughter's seemingly innate ability to coordinate lining up and driving a golf ball.
Next, Tia went to learn more about the game through the First Tee of Clearwater at Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Course.
When Walker saw a commercial on TV about the Drive, Chip and Putt Challenge, she entered both Tia and her son Adam. Tia was selected to compete and won the local and regional events. To prepare for the championship round, she recently started working with golf coaches at the Innisbrook Resort and Countryside Country Club.
Tia has a unique ability, said Cameron Ross, who works with Tia at the country club and has helped coach golfers for about 15 years.
Tia is able to control pressure and stress during big moments, like sinking a 30-foot putt— twice.
"You can't really teach talent, and she has it," Ross said.
Many golfers dream about playing a round at the Augusta National Golf Club. While Tia won't play the entire course, the Drive, Chip and Putt Challenge Championship includes events on the practice facility and the 18th green.
She is one of 88 other junior golfers who will get to play there.
The Drive, Chip and Putt Challenge is a free, nationwide junior skills competition open to boys and girls ages 7 to 15. Like the name suggests, it pits golfers against each other in several events, including trying to drive the ball the farthest and sinking a putt from varying distances.
Tia's ability to sink a 30-foot putt secured her wins at the local challenge at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar and also at the regional competition in August at Reunion Resort Golf Course near Orlando.
"I'm really excited that she gets an opportunity that's really rare," Walker said. "I want her to try her best. She earned her way to be there."