Huge Crowd Welcome U.S. Kids Golfers
Downtown Pinehurst resembled an Olympic Village of sorts Wednesday evening, as the opening ceremonies for the 9th Annual U.S. Kids Golf World Championship were held in the heart of the historic district.
In what Master of Ceremonies Rich Rushforth described as "the single biggest event the Village of Pinehurst has ever seen," more than 5,000 people from all corners of the world gathered to watch and participate in the celebration.
Rushforth, local radio and television personality from WIOZ/Star 102.5, has been to 20 Christmas Tree Lightings, as well as numerous Fourth of July and Saint Patrick's Day Parades in downtown Pinehurst, and even he was amazed by the turnout.
"Never have these streets been this crowded," he said.
The event began with a parade, which saw spectators standing up to five deep alongside some stretches of Chinquapin Road to get a glimpse of the action. Escorted by the USMC League Color Guard (Sandhills Detachment), Grand Marshals Peggy Kirk Bell and Harris Armstrong led the way in an antique black convertible.
Bell, of Southern Pines, is one of golf's true legends, pioneers and highest of ambassadors. Armstrong was later presented with the award for courage that bears her name.
The highlight of the parade was the procession of nations. Golfers from every nation and American state participating in the World Championship carried their respective flags, as cheers erupted from the crowd when various locales were introduced over the public address system.
In total, more than 1,250 kids from over 33 countries and 40 states provided the parade's flag flying finale. Starting from the Carolina Hotel, they soon arrived in the heart of downtown, then wrapped around the clock and flagpole in the center of the village before marching onto Cherokee Road to congregate in a cornucopia of color in front of the stage and large scoreboard, which was situated between Given Memorial Library and the Theatre Building.
Pinehurst Mayor George Lane welcomed the crowd, marveling at its size.
"This is one of the biggest crowds I have seen in Pinehurst," Lane said. "It is nice, the kids brought us all out and it's wonderful to be here."
Dan Van Horn, President of U.S. Kids Golf thanked the communities of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen and Carthage for helping put on the World Championship. "We could not have done this without them," he said. Next he turned his attention to the players.
"Have a good time before it all starts tomorrow," he said. "The World Championship is the top youth tournament on the globe. Therefore, you kids are the best in the world."
Harris Armstrong, a 12-year-old Floridian, received the Peggy Kirk Bell Award. The award is presented to an individual who exemplifies spirit and love of the game of golf. This is the second year for the award.
"Harris Armstrong is a young golfer who has made an important contribution to society," Van Horn said.
Armstrong is a two-time Drive Chip N' Putt National runner-up. In 2004 he won the Jekyll Island Cup and finished 16th in the world. In 2005 and 2006 he finished 33rd and 17th respectively. Last year Armstrong shot an 82 in his first day to come in at 63rd.
"Not long after that, Harris began noticing he was hooking his drive too much," said Van Horn.
Being one of the best junior golfers in the country, Armstrong's consistent waywardness off the tee soon began to raise some concerns. Then in October of 2007, an MRI revealed he had cancer, in the form of a tumor in his spinal chord. While most of the tumor was medically removed, the illness caused severe damage to Armstrong's left arm.
"Harris had a dream of qualifying in the World Championship for the U.S. team in the World Cup matches this year," said Van Horn, "and he is not able to."
The World Cup takes place Sunday on Pinehurst's No. 2 course. It is a Ryder Cup-style 12-year-old competition with the top players from the United States matching up against the best of the international golfers in a team event.
"So instead, Harris made a change by making a tremendous impact on our society," said Van Horn. "A devoted Christian, he started a prayer movement called Pray Strong. He attached the Bible verse Romans 12:12 to white rubber awareness bracelets designed with pimples to resemble a golf ball."
After the ceremony concluded, Armstrong, overwhelmed by attention and the enormity of the occasion, was at a loss for words but he had a huge smile on his face. His father Jeff did speak on his behalf.
"It is very meaningful," said Mr. Armstrong, "and really inspirational that Harris received this award. I want to thank Peggy Kirk Bell and give God the glory and honor him.
"God has Harris as a witness and his Christian character is being revealed through this. It is nice that it could happen in Pinehurst, we love it here. There are many great people living here that have embraced and enjoyed having us as their guests."
After Harris received his award, Bell took the opportunity to address the audience briefly.
"I could not get off the stage without saying how really humbled I am," she said, "and blessed to have this award named after me. Harris is a special young man and he gave me one of his wristbands with the prayer on it and I will certainly use it.
"We need to pray and God has blessed all of these young whose parents and guardians brought into this tournament and into the great game of golf. You will have it forever."
Once the stage was clear, The Vision Band began belting out some tunes and a party soon broke out. Bell and Harris were inundated with requests for photographs and pictures, and Van Horn spoke about the nature of the relationship between U.S. Kids Golf and Moore County.
"This is America's home of golf," he said, "but more than that, the people here truly care about the sport and want to give back. People feel cared about when they come here. It is like coming home. This is golf."
The World Championship began Thursday on nine area courses in nine different age divisions, and runs through Saturday. Then on Sunday morning, the World Cup takes place followed later by an awards banquet and closing ceremonies at Pinecrest High School's Robert E. Lee Auditorium.
However, after Wednesday's opening ceremonies, competition did not seem to be at the forefront of anyone's mind as the kids danced, ran around the closed-off streets, took in meals with their families and soaked in all that the Village of Pinehurst has to offer.
John Mathews, father of Mackenzie Mathews, a 9- year-old golfer from Burleson, Texas, loves Pinehurst.
"The people are just so friendly and accommodating," he said. "This is cool. I want to come back here for a golf vacation. The Village is so unique; I am surprised at the variety of shops and how nice the restaurants are and friendly the people are. It's so easy to get around too -- it's like a quaint little New England village."
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