FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – If it was possible to test out of high-school public speaking, Hannah O’Sullivan could make a good case at Xavier College Prep, located about 130 miles south of Forest Highlands Golf Course on Interstate 17. In preparation for the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Forest Highlands this week, O’Sullivan charmed members and guests at media day May 19 with an on-the-fly speech. Even more than greens hit or putts dropped on the way to a 1-under 71 that left O’Sullivan near the top of the leaderboard Monday, that trip to the podium says loads for her character.
O’Sullivan, the only player to take part in media day for this championship, had prepared a series of potential answers for what she thought would be a question-and-answer session about the course and the tournament. Upon arrival, she found out she’d be introduced to the crowd, then expected to say whatever came to mind.
“I was like, ‘What? Speech?’ ” O’Sullivan remembers. The 16-year-old handled it beautifully. In a tournament packed with exceptionally young talent (O’Sullivan was once one – she first played this tournament as an 14-year-old in 2012), it shows she has made it to the next level.
“I’m one of the more experienced players and I’d say experience helps with my confidence,” she said.
O’Sullivan is one of three Arizona-based players in the field this week, and is the closest geographically. She’s played the course a handful of times, and was steady Monday with two birdies and a bogey.
“I see a lot of potential to go even lower,” she said after a post-round practice-range session.
O’Sullivan first made headlines in 2010 when she qualified for the prestigious San Francisco City Amateur tournament as an 11-year-old, only to be told she couldn’t play because she hadn’t reached the 12-year-old age limit. Later that spring she won the California State Amateur, and in the fall, qualified for her first U.S. Golf Association Championship as a 12-year-old – the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. She made the cut, but fell in the first round of match play.
For a player chasing a spot on a college roster, the AJGA holds the ticket. O’Sullivan won her first event, the Stockton Sports Commission Junior Open in August 2010, to earn fully exempt status. It made her road considerably easier – she’s had five top-five finishes since.
One of the best aspects of junior golf is the opportunity to watch players develop, and O’Sullivan’s growth has been marked.
“I’ve opened up a little,” O’Sullivan says of herself. “I’m one of the more experienced players now.”
She also has college plans laid out now. O’Sullivan verbally committed to USC shortly before media day, and it’s as if a weight has been lifted from her shoulders. The hard decision made, she can now return to focusing on game improvement.
College will mark a return to California for O’Sullivan, who spent most of her childhood in suburban San Francisco. The family moved to Paradise Valley, Ariz., shortly after the 2012 Girls’ Junior, played at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif. This tournament seems to follow her.
In Paradise Valley, O’Sullivan has taken up work with swing coach Kene Bensel, the same instructor who works with Kyung Kim, a future USC teammate who played on this year’s U.S. Curtis Cup squad.
“She’s so accurate,” O’Sullivan marvels about Kim, but her game is getting there, too. Playing the narrow fairways of Phoenix Country Club, her home course, has forced O’Sullivan to rein it in. Her chipping and putting strongest area of her game.
After this week, O’Sullivan will tee it up at the PGA Junior Championship at Miramont Golf Club in Bryan, Texas, then head to Nassau Country Club in Glencoe, N.Y., for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. O’Sullivan has yet to meet her next big goal: win a major amateur tournament.
At Forest Highlands, at least, the podium would feel familiar.