FORT WAYNE, Ind. – This is the one for which Gabriella Then has been searching. Four times a competitor at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Then had never made it past the quarterfinals until now. She’ll tee it up in the final against Lakareber Abe on Saturday.
For Then, there was the first-round, sudden-death loss to a surging Victoria Tanco in 2010, the quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Ariya Jutanugarn in 2011. In 2012, a slumping game stalled Then in the first round yet again. At the end of her junior golf career, a USGA title would “put a cherry on top” for the 17-year-old.
Then plays as excitedly as she speaks. She has a tendency to build a deep cushion in the opening holes at Sycamore Hills, and opponents so far this week have found Then’s advantage insurmountable. She was 5 up after five holes of her third-round match against Cheyenne Knight and 3 up after five holes against Megan Khang in the semifinals. Then eventually won that match, 2 up.
“When I have the opportunity to make the birdie putt or the par putt, it’s the right kind of pressure for me,” Then said.
Then, however, says she’s incapable of being mean when she plays. Besides, she and Abe, a 17-year-old from Angleton, Texas, have competed in the same tournaments – this one included – for years.
While the two have shared a bathroom – they roomed together at the Scott Robertson Memorial and the Rolex Girls Junior earlier this summer – they’ve never actually shared a tee box in competition.
“We are really good friends,” Then said.
Then’s key so far this week has been putting. Sycamore Hills’ greens, she said, are firm and fast. Together with caddie Fred Williams, who traveled with the Then family from Empire Lakes Golf Club back home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Then has been lethal because of precision with her putter.
Abe, on the other hand, has powered her way around Sycamore Hills with solid ball-striking. She spent most of the afternoon battling back against Wu’s 1-up lead. After pars at No. 1, they didn’t tie another hole until No. 14. They tied 15, a reachable par 5, with unusual pars, and Abe’s birdie at No. 16 spelled the end of the match.
“It means a lot,” Abe said of making it to the final. “I’ve been practicing really hard.”
Abe’s victory left Wu on the sidelines after two days of grinding. Three of Wu’s past four matches went to the 18th, and opponents included Nicole Morales, Samantha Wagner and Casie Cathrea.
“I feel like my game got better after every match,” said Wu, who had been the iron woman of this championship.
Wu doesn’t have a major match-play victory to her credit, but the Annika Invitational champion leaves Fort Wayne with one heck of a head-to-head resume as well as a few vicious blisters from making circles around Sycamore Hills.
“I did very well this week,” she said. Indeed, it took a great effort from Abe to knock her out.
Abe has the support this week of caddie and coach Justin Poynter, the director of instruction at Jim McLean Academy, where Abe plays and boards. Poynter and Abe can be seen on each green, carefully choosing a line for the putt. The theme around McLean Academy is to get better at something every day. For Abe this week, with Poynter’s help, that might be putting.
Older sister Tezira, a sophomore at Texas, isn’t on the sidelines in Fort Wayne with Lakareber’s parents, so the finalist has been spending her off-course hours exchanging snap chats with her older sister.
Should Abe win the shining U.S. Girls’ Junior trophy on Saturday, it will be worth much more than a quick snapshot.