Nicole Criscone got to bed Tuesday night a little before 8:30, not long after eating some Chinese food with her mom Tammy and dad Craig. The 10-year-old had a big day waiting for her the next day at the Albany Academy for Girls, where group work on a history project was scheduled to get underway.
“And I love school,” said Nicole, a fifth-grader who lives in Clifton Park.
That early bedtime was needed, too, after an exhausting few days. An avid golfer, most of Nicole’s spring and summer weekends are spent traveling to play in whatever tournament or competition in which she’s set to compete. This past weekend, though, was something special, something out of a fairy tale for a kid like Nicole.
She hung out for a bit with Condoleezza Rice. Shook hands with Bubba Watson. Exchanged pleasantries with Justin Timberlake.
That was all part of her experience competing in the Drive, Chip & Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Course, hallowed grounds for any golfer and the site of today’s first round of the 80th Masters. Nicole qualified for the competition’s finals in the girls’ 10-11 division after advancing through three rounds of qualifying play. In Sunday’s competition — consisting of two drives, chips and putts apiece — Nicole finished in ninth place out of 10, but with the second-best mark in putting.
Her driver was her weak club in the competition. Nicole’s longest shot went a little more than 114 yards, about 40 fewer than usual for the 4-foot-7, 60-pound golfer.
“But we knew that wasn’t going to be a strong point for her based on her size and age,” said Craig Criscone, whose daughter just turned 10 in late March and was the youngest competitor in her division.
Nicole started golfing when she was 4, taking to the sport after a trip with her father to the driving range.
“She watched for a bit, then grabbed a club. It was twice as tall as her, so she choked down on it, swung it, and hit it pretty good,” Craig Criscone said
Formal lessons started before too long, and her first course was the par-3 Barney Road Golf Course in Clifton Park. She started playing in U.S. Kids Golf tournaments when she was 6 and added NENY PGA events to her schedule at age 8. Nicole, who trains under Anders Mattson at the Saratoga National Golf Club, currently leads the U.S. Kids’ North Jersey Local Tour in overall points for the 2016 spring season.
A skier in the winter, Nicole said the rely-on-yourself nature of golf is her favorite thing about the game.
“It’s an independent sport,” she said. “In basketball, you have to pass it to somebody and it’s depending on them to make the goal or not. If you mess up [in golf], it’s your own fault.”
It’s a very serious approach for a 10-year-old, especially for one who lists “dancing around the house” as her favorite non-golf activity. Nicole’s secondary reason for loving golf is more in line with what one might expect.
“I love nature, too, so it’s cool being outside,” she said.
Outside of competing, getting to take a drive down Magnolia Lane was Nicole’s favorite part of her three-day excursion to Augusta National, which started last Saturday with opening festivities and concluded Monday with a chance to watch the tournament’s practice round.
“Driving down Magnolia Lane was above and beyond,” she said. “That was so cool. All the trees were so beautiful.”
Nicole’s best moments in the competition came on the course’s 18th green, where her putts from 15 and 30 feet landed a combined 5 feet, 5 inches from the hole. During that segment of the competition, too, was when she bumped into Rice and found herself next to Watson. She froze up a bit when she saw him.
“Then, he reaches out for my hand and I shook it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Nicole’s favorite golfers are Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, but she went back into star-struck mode when she met Adam Scott during the competition’s awards ceremony.
After watching Monday’s practice round, Nicole and her parents traveled back home Tuesday to complete their journey. Nicole’s plan is to make it back to the competition next year, too, and turn her whirlwind trips to Augusta National into an annual occurrence.
“It was over in the blink of an eye,” Craig Criscone said.