FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Surrounded by her Philippine teammates, Princess Mary Superal was difficult to pick out Saturday. Late in the day on the 14th green at Forest Highlands Golf Club, and with a heavy storm cloud looming on the horizon, they appeared simply as one giggling mass of pink-clad petites.
Superal could later be identified as the one with the medal around her neck, sometimes the one carrying the silver trophy that was nearly half her size. The road to the U.S. Girls’ Junior title was long and hilly, and when over, didn’t quite seem real.
“It’s like I’m dreaming,” Superal said of her victory. “I really didn’t expect it.”
Superal, 17, outlasted Marijosse Navarro, also 17, of Mexico, in a 37-hole final match. Thanks to sharp putting, Superal took a 1-up advantage with a birdie at No. 4 and never relinquished it. She bounced back and forth between 1 up and 2 up – the two matched birdies four times throughout the day – until Navarro made a late charge with birdies at Nos. 15 and 16 in the afternoon. Suddenly the match was square.
“I just told myself not to pressure myself that much,” Superal said of that moment.
Navarro took her first lead of the day at No. 17, the 35th hole of the match, when she got up and down from weeds left of the green and Superal three-putted for bogey. Navarro simply had to tie Superal’s birdie at the 18th, but missed an 8-footer to send the match to extra holes.
Navarro put her drive in a hazard left of the par-5 14th in sudden death, and conceded Superal’s par for the victory after half a step of hesitation. It made Superal the first winner of this championship born in the Philippines (Dorothy Delasin, of Philippine descent but born in the U.S., won in 1996).
The week-long journey, and the hard-fought final, also gave Navarro renewed faith in her game.
“Making it to the final, it’s like my greatest accomplishment in my junior career,” said Navarro, who already completed one semester at Texas A&M even though she has yet to turn 18.
From the sidelines, Philippine coaches Nestor Mendoza and Anthony Lopez watched proudly. Lopez coaches the Philippine National Team, and Mendoza assists. This week, the two are traveling with five Filipina players as part of an elite training program that acts as a feeder to the national team.
“You do not know what this means to my country,” Lopez said, watching from across the clubhouse lawn as Superal stood among a tight row of USGA officials and volunteers, ready to accept her trophy. “You can’t fathom what this means in my country.”
Superal played as if she were in a trance all week. Her movements were methodical, and she never seemed rushed. She read each putt from multiple angles on the green, no matter the distance. It’s part of a new visualization technique Superal has worked on with Lopez.
That, and increased distance. When Superal first came to Lopez three years ago, her driver maxed out at about 180 yards.
“My challenge was to make her accept that hitting it hard, and hitting it longer, she could keep (her accuracy),” Lopez said.
He placed Superal on a fitness program that had her running and lifting weights four times each week. Slowly, she built strength. At Forest Highlands, she averaged roughly 230 yards off the tee. Lopez hopes to find her 20 more yards.
That fitness also proved useful during a week of golf played above 6,000 feet. The altitude and hills got the better of many a player and caddie. With six holes to go in the final match, Superal’s caddie Mark Walker had to bow out. His body simply couldn’t take any more.
“He told me this morning, ‘Coach, I’m going to try my very best,’” Mendoza said of the local retiree who had wanted only to give back to the game.
When that happened, Philippine teammate Yuka Saso subbed in. She picked up the bag at No. 13 tee and immediately had Superal, a normally quiet player, smiling and giggling. From the sidelines, Mendoza worried it would throw off her rhythm. He had been prepared to step in and take the bag, too.
Superal, however, thrived with that bit of encouragement. Teammates had been in her gallery all week, cheering her on and giving words of encouragement. Her confidence grew through the week.
It’s the kind of atmosphere Mendoza and Lopez encourage among their players. Superal very nearly missed entering this championship. Mendoza had thought her World Amateur Golf Ranking would earn her a spot, but it fell in the weeks before the deadline and she had to qualify at the last minute.
Mendoza entered Superal in the Girls’ Junior qualifier at Walnut Creek Country Club in South Lyon, Mich., on June 18 – so she could play on the way home from the Women’s Porter Cup, where she finished third – and Superal won with 67. Mendoza encouraged her to look at it as a bonus event, and a chance to see beautiful Michigan.
That trip began with a premonition from Mendoza.
“I remember… when we were at the airport, I told Princess, ‘This is our time,’” he said.
It’s hard to say what this victory might do to increase Superal’s confidence even more. The last time she reached the final in a match-play tournament was at the 2012 Trans National Amateur. Superal ended up losing, 3 and 2, to Australian Breanna Elliott, but it was a turning point, and an experience from which she frequently draws memories..
“I just told myself it was a great experience,” she said.
Before this championship, Superal had asked Lopez if she was ready to turn professional. She has taken the past two years off traditional school, choosing instead to study on the road as part of a new program offered to elite athletes and promising actors in the Philippines.
“I said yes, in stages. Of course she wants to jump to LPGA right away,” he said. Playing opportunities would include the Asian Tour and a few professional events in the Philippines before trying the LPGA.
After logging so many miles around Forest Highlands, Superal hoped to celebrate with some very American food. She has a weakness for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which can be found even in the Philippines, but Lopez mentioned the steak dinner at Denny’s.
After this week, Superal deserves all that and more.