Kevin Fitzgerald
Palm Desert High School sophomore Braden Bernaldo, in front of the First Tee course outside the organization's Palm Desert headquarters. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

A while back, local media went crazy over Braden Bernaldo, a 14-year-old Palm Desert High School sophomore.

In July, the golf prodigy was selected as one of just 78 youth members, boys and girls, of the nationwide First Tee organization to play in the annual Juniors Competition—and that meant Bernaldo was going to head to the 2019 Pure Insurance Championship. The tournament is a regular tour stop on the PGA Champions senior schedule. Each of the junior golfers, as they’re known, would be paired in competition with one of the senior PGA pros for three rounds of play.

“One early morning late in this past July, we had to wake up at 4 a.m.,” Bernaldo said when the Independent sat down with him recently at the First Tee of the Coachella Valley’s headquarters in Palm Desert. The reason: The announcement of the junior participants was being made on Morning Drive, the show that airs on the Golf Channel from 7 to 9 a.m. Eastern time.

How did Bernaldo react when his name was announced?

“I was standing there in shock,” Bernaldo said. “I couldn’t move. It was unbelievable knowing that I was going to attend a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was very grateful. My parents, on the other hand, were jumping and, like, screaming and waking up the rest of my siblings.”

So Bernaldo headed off to the legendary Poppy Hills Golf Club and Pebble Beach Golf Links courses in Northern California for the tournament, which took place Sept. 27-29. And how did things go?

At first … they went really well for Braden and his pro partner, Tommy Armour III. After the initial two rounds, Bernaldo had distinguished himself by shooting a 65 at Poppy Hills on Friday, and a 66 at the par-72 Pebble Beach course on Saturday. He and Armour survived the cut easily, and were in a tie for sixth place heading into the final round on Sunday, at Pebble Beach.

Alas, on Sunday, the wheels came off—and they wound up in 23rd place. What went wrong?

“I don’t know,” Bernaldo said thoughtfully. “I guess it was a combination of our mistakes not fitting in the right spots. Since it was best ball, he would have a couple of blow-up holes, and I would, too. … It was bad. He didn’t make any birdies in the final round, whereas I made four. But all those bogies that he made and I made, they covered up all those birdies, and we shot over par.” That final round score was 73, sliding Bernaldo into 23rd—last among the junior players who made the cut.

But golf—and life, some would say—are not all about finishing in first with a trophy in hand. Proponents of the First Tee program believe that maxim to be true. The goal is to imbue each of the talented youngsters with an appreciation of, and the tools to practice, the organization’s nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. Bernaldo said those valuable character traits came in handy during his weekend at Pebble Beach.

“Having it be a struggle out there, and barely playing the courses (before), took perseverance,” he said. “And respect (came into play), having to fill in your divots, or placing the flag on the fringe so it doesn’t ruin the greens. All sorts of things just went together. Communication was a part of going there, and building new relationships with people. To this day, us juniors still are in contact with each other and hold group chats. It’s really awesome. I also made other relationships with adults I met up there, and I’m keeping in contact with them through email.”

What are the best memories he has taken away from the experience?

“In the final round, (it was) hole 17, obviously the most iconic par-3,” Bernaldo said. “The pin was on the left side of the green, and the wind was blowing into us. I just took a knock-down 5 iron, hit it within 6 feet (of the pin), and made birdie, fortunately.

“Things went downhill on 18, but … ,” he added with a laugh.

The off-course events impressed him as well.

“The evening activities that they set up for the juniors were unbelievable experiences,” he said. “Especially the pairings-reveal with all of the professionals and their family members there. We got to interact with them and other juniors, and that was amazing.”

Bernaldo said he’s anxious to get back out on a course, since he has been laboring hard to catch up on school work since his return from Pebble Beach. He high hopes for the Palm Desert High School golf team this upcoming season, which begins in February.

“From the team aspect, the whole goal for us was building our relationships between each other. In previous years, (the team members) just weren’t strong with each other, connection-wise,” Bernaldo said. “But we were, and I believe that’s why we had many successes last year.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...