2006: Girl’s golf: So hot, it’s cool

North Plains, Ore.

The ninth annual Garlic Festival was being held in downtown North Plains, population 1,700, at the same time the U.S. Women’s Amateur was being conducted at neighboring Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

The specialty dessert – I’m not making this up – was garlic ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s, eat your heart out.

“Fun stinks” read the omnipresent Garlic Festival signs.

“Women’s golf is cool” could have been the motto at Pumpkin Ridge, which has hosted four national championships for women in the past nine years. The Pumpkin plate includes two U.S. Women’s Opens, one U.S. Girls’ Junior and this U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Kimberly Kim, winner of the Women’s Amateur, definitely is cool. I have listened to victory speeches at dozens of amateur and professional championships, yet I have never heard a more captivating delivery. When the 14-year-old thanked the 18th hole for allowing her ball to go in, I knew I was a Kim Kim fan for life.

“She said she didn’t know how to give a speech,” said Pumpkin Ridge co-founder Barney Hyde. “I told her just to express her feelings. She did a phenomenal job.”

This girl is comfortable with being 14, and that’s cool. She is part of a stunning youth movement in women’s golf.

At the same time Pumpkin Ridge was doing its part to raise the profile of women’s tournament golf, the women’s game was going crazy around the country. A frenzied revolution is under way.

Athletic young women such as Kim have been flocking to golf. National Golf Foundation statistics show a substantial number of women entering and leaving the game – leveling the overall growth of women’s golf – but there is no question that the competitive side of women’s golf has benefited tremendously from a groundswell of new young talent. The popularity of tournament golf among teenagers has exploded. This is not your grandmother’s game, or your mother’s game, and maybe not even your older sister’s game. It has changed drastically, and it has done so in just the last few years.

“I am surprised and amazed that so many young women can compete at such a high level,” said Carol Semple Thompson, the U.S. Curtis Cup captain. “When I was 16, I was a kid. Now it’s different, and I think we better get used to it.”

Of the 156 players who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur, 30 were either 14, 15 or 16. Just 11 of the 156 were mid-amateurs (25 or older).

When the field was cut to 64 match-play contestants after 36 holes of medal play, only two mid-ams were left. They were 26-year-old Katarina Schallenberg, the eventual runner-up, and 39-year-old Lara Tennant.

Tennant, a resident of nearby Portland and mother of five, produced one of the most compelling stories of this Women’s Amateur, although she lost her first-round match and promptly returned to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of lunch at the Pumpkin Ridge clubhouse.

Here is a remarkable statistic: Of the 64 golfers in match play, 16 were between 14 and 16. The U.S. Women’s Amateur is open to the best amateurs in the world. There are no age stipulations. However, the message is loud and clear when 25 percent of the players who make match play are 16 or younger.

Honey, they’re home.

Essentially these women played the men’s blue tees at Pumpkin Ridge. The maximum yardage for the U.S. Women’s Amateur was listed as 6,416 yards. This included the 14th hole, normally a par 5, playing 100 yards shorter as a par 4.

I saw 16-year-old Carlota Cigunda of Spain hit a 323-yard drive on the 17th hole. The Spanish bomber thrashed U.S. Curtis Cup player Taylor Leon by a 5-and-4 count, but eventually was undone by crooked tee shots when she lost to Jennie Arseneault in the third round.

I saw so many gifted young golfers that I have to admit it: I was not fully aware of the giant steps taken by girls’ golf in quantity and quality.

I kept inquiring about the impetus of this revolution, and a single word repeatedly popped up: cool.

“Now it really is cool to play golf,” said Kay Cockerill, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1986 and ’87 and now is a reporter for The Golf Channel. “It is not a geeky sport. You provide these kids with good equipment and access to better instructors, and they will do amazing things.”

Observed Ed Gowan, executive director of the Arizona Golf Association: “You don’t see any more funny swings on the practice tee.”

David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association and a huge supporter of women’s golf, said he was “pleased, but not really surprised” at the emergence of so many golf-gifted young women.

“There were years, and it wasn’t that long ago, when we wondered if we would get 156 entries in the Girls’ Junior,” Fay said, “but that changed very decisively.”

The initial U.S. Girls’ Junior, played in 1949, attracted 33 entries. The next year, the entries were down to 18.

Suddenly, in 1996, the Girls’ Junior attracted 618 players, up spectacularly from 267 the year before. It was the start of the revolution.

Not so coincidentally, Tiger Woods captured his final U.S. Amateur title here at Pumpkin Ridge in 1996. His boundless inspiration touched girls as well as boys.

Gaylord Davis, one of the Pumpkin Ridge founders and a two-time Oregon Amateur champion, pointed to the crucial role of Title IX in the women’s golf movement.

“It opened the door,” Davis said.

Title IX provided a superflux of college golf scholarships for women, although I wish more of these women would earn their degrees rather than defect to the pros. In the academic arena, my hero is Duke University’s Jennie Lee, runner-up in the 2006 NCAA individual competition.

“I love college,” said Lee, who lost in the quarterfinal round of the Women’s Amateur. “I can’t wait to get back. I am so proud to be a representative of Duke.”

Such sentiment is very cool and sets the stage for my concluding advice: Study hard, swing hard, eat plenty of garlic.

Fun stinks. Golf definitely doesn’t.




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