Less than three years ago New Hartford’s Derek Bard was wrapping up a decorated high school golf career.
This week Bard is at Augusta National Golf Club and will be competing against the world’s best and some all-time legends of the game at the most famous tournament in golf … the Masters.
Bard will take the iconic trip down Magnolia Lane to the famed clubhouse. He will be on the range and putting green with the likes of Jordan Speith, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Rory McIroy. He could possibly meet or practice near legends like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player or Nick Faldo.
“It is crazy,” Bard said. “It has kind of felt surreal leading up to it, however, now that it is only a few days away the reality is setting in. It has already hit me, but I don’t think it will fully sink in until I am there practicing with the best in the world. Obviously, that walk to the first tee on Thursday will make it real.”
Bard, qualified for the 2016 Masters by making the final of the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois. Bard, who lost in the final to Bryson DeChambeau, knocked off the world’s No. 1 ranked player Jon Rahm in the quarterfinals, then earned his place in the Masters field by defeating Japan’s Kenta Konishi in the semis.
Bard, 20, is a standout at the University of Virginia and is one of the top ranked amateurs in the world. He’s ranked No. 11 by Golfweek and No. 25 by WAGR (World Amateur Golf Ranking). Now he gets to experience what he hopes is just the first of many appearances in the Masters at famed Augusta National.
Bard, along with his father, Dave and brother, Alec, has been in Augusta since Thursday night. Derek has been getting in practice rounds and enjoying every moment in his preparation for the biggest moment in his golfing career. From the immaculate conditions, the visual beauty of the azaleas, playing Amen Corner and walking over the Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen Bridges, Bard will get an experience few can only dream of. Then there is hitting that first tee shot in the first round.
“It’s just an incredible experience no matter what,” Dave Bard said. “In my opinion, if he can enjoy that first tee experience … I’m not sure what could rival that. … Maybe a Ryder Cup … But most of the pros would say that first tee experience (at the Masters) is pretty unique.”
Like he did at the U.S. Amateur, Alec, a senior at New Hartford High School and Penn State committ, will be caddying for Derek. That means when Dave and Dawn Bard look up at the first tee Thursday, they will see their two sons.
“It’ll be a little shocking, a little strange,” Dave said. “It’s something you never think about actually happening. To be honest, from what we’ve heard, it’s so crowded around the first tee, we are hoping we get to see that first tee shot. … The two of them on the first tee … I’m not sure they will believe it either.”
There’s no doubt nerves will be a huge factor for Bard during the round and especially on the first tee. Past champions and the world’s best golfers still speak of being extremely nervous every year while hitting that opening tee shot at the Masters.
Bard’s strength is his focus and he’s been preparing for moments like this his entire life.
PHENOM AT YOUNG AGE
Dave Bard had a passion for the game and it carried over to his children. At four years old, Derek, the oldest of three children, first began hitting golf balls in the backyard of his New Hartford home. Derek would work on his game for endless hours when he was young and still does some work there now.
“Our backyard was big enough for them to hit full shots,” Dave said of Derek, Alec and Sydney being able to have a de facto golf facility at their home. “It isn’t big enough anymore.”
Derek’s work ethic is unmatched and has helped separate him from many who possess equal talent. After seeing his son’s passion for the game flourish, Dave called upon Wayne Manderson to fine tune Derek’s game.
Bard, who listed his dad and Manderson as huge influences on his early development, became one of the top junior players in Central New York. He became a dominant force in local tournaments and quickly earned his way into major regional and some national tournaments at a young age.
Manderson, then a teaching pro at Sadaquada Golf Club in Whitesboro, knew quickly Derek had a special quality that made him different from his other pupils.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Manderson said of Bard already making an appearance in the Masters. “He has such an unbelievable work ethic. He’d be on the putting green (at Sadaquada) working before our lessons. He concentrated and focused so much on the short game, and throughout the times I worked with him he was never worried about distance. He just cared about hitting it straight and knew distance would come.
“Derek’s short game back then was as good or better than mine … even at that point. Early on, I could see had an incredible gift and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s made it. He was never satisfied where he was and always wanted to improve.”
HITTING HIS STRIDE
Joining New Hartford’s varsity golf team as a seventh grader, Derek quickly proved to his much-older and much bigger counterparts and opponents, that he was the real deal.
Bard, who also played hockey in high school, won five Class A titles and three sectional championships during his six years. His biggest accomplishment came in his junior season when he won the 2012 New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championship at Cornell University’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Course. During his senior season, Bard added another major victory to his resume by finishing first at the 2013 New York State Federation championship at Bethpage Black.
New Hartford golf coach Tom Snizek knew early on during Derek’s first season that he was coaching a special talent. Snizek strongly believes that those practice sessions every year from April to June at Yahnundasis Golf Club was definitely vital to Derek’s development.
“I think it was right from the get go,” said Snizek, who is spending the week with the Bard family and attending every step of Derek’s experience. “In seventh grade he was so focused. After matches he wouldn’t leave like everyone else. He’d go to range, then to the practice green and his dad would pick him up at seven or eight o’clock.”
Unlike Manderson, Snizek admits being a bit surprised that his former pupil is already competing in a Masters.
“I didn’t expect that,” said Snizek, who attended the Masters in 2013. “I knew he’d make it, but didn’t know it would be that soon. To make it at the age of 20 is incredible.”
After high school, Derek headed to Charlottesville to become a student/athlete at the University of Virginia. Dawn Bard, who is a pediatrician, graduated from medical school at Virginia and Derek was born in Charlottesville.
As he did in high school, Derek made an immediate impact at Virginia. In his debut for the Cavaliers, Derek finished fourth at the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate Tournament. As a freshman was named to the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Honor Roll and was fourth on the team with a 72.20 stroke average.
During his sophomore campaign, Derek continued to improve as he shot par or better in 24 of his 38 rounds and won medalist with a 15-under total at the U.S. Collegiate. In all, he had five top-10 finishes and was Virginia’s top finisher in four tournaments.
Bard is still in the midst of his junior season and is on the Ben Hogan Watch List for 2016. He led the Cavaliers with a 71.29 fall average and repeated as U.S. Collegiate medalist.
Derek’s finish at the U.S. Amateur also qualified him for this year’s U.S. Open at historic Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. But for now it’s all about playing in and trying to enjoy his favorite tournament of all.
MASTERS TRADITION IS FAMILY AFFAIR
Like many families with a passion for golf, the Bards view the Masters as the most special event in golf. Derek has watched it along with his family since as far back as he can remember.
From Jack Nicklaus’ unlikely run to the 1986 Green Jacket to Tiger Woods’ monumental victory in 1997 to Jordan Spieth’s dominant win last year, the Masters has created as many memorable moments as any event in golf.
Bard is a huge fan of Tiger Woods, who is recovering from back surgery and will not play in this year’s event. While he wasn’t even two years old when Woods won his first Masters, Bard recalls that his first memory of watching the event involved another Tiger moment.
“I’ll never forget Tiger winning the ‘Tiger Slam’ in 2001,” said Derek, who lists his favorite moment as Woods’ famous chip-in on the par-3 16th in 2005. “I was at my grandparents’ house so my whole family was watching. When he rolled in the 15-foot birdie putt to win by two, I remember my dad saying ‘He tried to make it!’ when all he needed was a two-putt.”
Tee times come out Tuesday or Wednessday and Derek will find out who he’s grouped with in the first two rounds. The U.S. Amateur runner-up usually plays with a past champion in his group. The other player in his group could be anyone, but no matter whom it is, Derek will likely have to shake his head in disbelief that he’s actually playing with these professionals.
“It will be a little strange, because I watch them on TV week in and week out,” Derek said. “I have to view them as a competitor and not an idol or someone I look up to. It will be cool to meet some of them and hopefully play with a few of them too.”
Due to the limited television coverage that is less than almost every other tournament, Dave still tunes in to watch extended coverage on the Internet. Now his son will be playing on the same layout that has created so many memorable moments.
Neither Derek nor Dave had ever been to Augusta National before going to practice in November and again in March. They were both awe struck at the course that he’d seen hundreds of times on television.
“Once you get in there it’s like another world,” Dave said. “Everything is so immaculate.”
Now he gets to watch one of his sons playing in the event and the other caddying.
“It’s finally sinking in,” Dave said. “We are going, so I guess it’s really happening. It will definitely be interesting. It’ll be a little shocking, a little strange. Something you never think about actually happening. To be honest, we’ve heard it’s tough to get views at the first tee, but we are hoping to see that first tee shot. … The two of them on the first tee … I’m not sure they will believe it either.”
The rest of Derek’s immediate family and some close friends will be joining him this weekend and plan to stay the entire week in the house the Bards rented. Derek plans on thoroughly enjoying every single minute of this experience.
“Everything,” Derek said. “Ranging from the amateur dinner on Monday evening, to the Par 3 contest and the actual tournament … I want to make sure that I soak it all in and enjoy everything, as the week will go by fast. I will practice and play Friday-Wednesday. I will try to not do too much, it is easy to get carried away. Rest is the most important thing. Monday night is the amateur dinner at the club, which I am bringing my mother with me. The Par 3 contest is Wednesday which I plan to play in.”
While it is certain that Derek will enjoy his first appearance in the Masters, playing well can make it a storybook experience. Derek and his family plan on staying the entire week whether he makes the cut or not. However, the competitive juices will come out and proving he belongs on the game’s grandest stage is something he hopes to achieve.
“I think it would be cool to make the cut and be in contention on the weekend,” Bard said. “I feel that if I play well and manage my game, it is possible. Obviously, the hardest part will be the mental aspect, as I have never played on this stage in front of this many people.”
It will be a huge challenge to prepare for Augusta National’s 7,435-yard layout that is full of elevation changes and is widely considered a course that requires intimate knowledge and plenty of experience. Bard, with his meticulous work ethic, will give it his best shot and has already figured out some keys to success.
“I have been doing a lot of short game (work),” Bard said. “The key to that course is being as comfortable as possible on and around the greens, so my focus has been on the short game. I will spend a lot of time in different spots around each green trying to get comfortable with the different kinds of shots that will be needed.”
Augusta National doesn’t have narrow fairways or heavy rough as its defense. It does, however, have subtle intricacies that require precise play. During his recent trips to the course, Bard found some issues that he’ll have to be deal with this week if he hopes to be successful.
“I was definitely (surprised) how hilly it was,” Derek said. “But also how undulating the greens were, as you cannot tell that on television. Also, how quickly the wind changes and swirls there, especially down on Amen Corner. Knowing the wind direction at all times is key.”
Although any first-time player at the Masters is a longshot to contend, Manderson wouldn’t be shocked if Derek plays well this week.
“From what I saw in the U.S. Am, he has what it takes to play well this week,” Manderson said. “I think in August he showed the mental toughness necessary … it will have to be the same this week. I think that golf course sets up pretty nice for him.”
Whether Derek makes or misses the cut, he’s already won. No matter if he goes on to win major golf tournaments on the PGA Tour or excel in another career field, these are certain to be memories that’ll last a lifetime.
Follow Derek Bard’s hole-by-hole progress at the Masters onTwitter @nsardinamysr
Check midyorksportsreport.com this week for updates after Bard’s competitive rounds.