My year in golf: Julie Williams
Piece by piece, I watched So Yeon Ryu’s golf bag dismantled in the aftermath of the U.S. Women’s Open. On that brisk Monday morning at The Broadmoor, I was waiting patiently for my five minutes with Ryu’s caddie, Dean Herden, while the big Aussie handed out bits of memorabilia – balls, gloves – to the line of fans that approached him on the 18th green.
U.S. Women's Open (Rd. 4)
Check out photos from the final round of the 2011 U.S. Women's Open
Ariya Jutanugarn, Rolex POY
Ariya Jutanugarn was named the AJGA's Rolex Player of the Year after a 2011 season that included wins at the U.S. Girls' Junior and Junior PGA Championship.
“Sorry, mate. I’m fresh out,” Herden eventually had to tell one middle-aged man, wiping sweat from his brow as he turned to me and spoke fondly of a player he had known since she was a teenager – a player whom he had helped learn English while he looped for her friends back home in South Korea. Meanwhile, Ryu, 21, displayed a charming smile off the side of the green despite being soaked from champagne courtesy of compatriots and past Open champions Se Ri Pak and Eun-Hee Ji. Soon she was whisked away for interviews, and I raced back to my computer to produce 1,000 words on a long-past East Coast deadline. Among the media contingent in attendance that day, I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t alone in feeling my blood pressure skyrocket. The next two hours passed in a fog.
During my second full year at Golfweek, my beat expanded from junior, amateur and college women’s golf to include a few professional events. The Women’s Open was my second major, following the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. I was blown away by the crowds at both, and by the pressure that blanketed the finishing holes. I was equally impressed by each respective venue, particularly the “walk of champions” just off the 18th green at Mission Hills. All week I walked those few yards – with crowds and without – but when champion Stacy Lewis and Co. made the historic jump into Poppies Pond on Sunday, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see it. No, I was interviewing another player near the scoring tent, and there were just too many bodies between me and the pond. I won’t make that mistake again.
The Kraft and the Women’s Open are, without a doubt, pinnacle moments in the sport. But maybe the coolest part of my job is monitoring the road to those tournaments. This year, that progression was most evident in the careers of Thai sisters Ariya (16) and Moriya (17) Jutanugarn. They showed up at nearly every junior, amateur and professional event I covered.
In spoken English that has come a long way since I first met the Jutanugarns in July 2009, the family told me stories of spending an entire summer away from everything they know back home in Bangkok, sharing one hotel room among the four of them, traveling with so little luggage that they sometimes have to wash their clothes in the sink the night before a match, and navigating airports and rental-car agreements as non-native speakers. They find a church and give thanks for this life at every opportunity they get, and they never stop smiling.
Watching the Jutanugarns makes you realize that playing professional golf is a tough lifestyle.
So did watching bedraggled players trudge away from the leaderboard at U.S. Open sectionals – my first foray into men’s professional golf – after coming so close to the national championship.
So did watching UCLA senior Stephanie Kono have to leave her beloved team at the end of the fall semester to accept an LPGA card she had earned easily this time at Q-School, but that might not come so easily in another year.
And so did watching 17-year-old newbie pro Ginger Howard come to the teary realization that she had fallen one shot short of earning hers that same afternoon.
Say what you will about women’s golf – it’s lack of fanfare and domestic playing opportunities – but from my seat, it was an intense year.