Then rallies to regain lead, defeats Abe at Girls' Jr.
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Gabriella Then wasn’t entirely certain she would play the U.S. Girls’ Junior. If she had made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open, Then would have been exempt into this championship. Then, however, came five shots short, which inspired some deep thinking.
In the end, the Then family drove hundreds of miles from Sebonack Golf Club, the Women’s Open venue in New York, to a qualifier in Alabama, back to New York for Gabriella’s younger sister Angella to play an AJGA tournament, went home to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and at long last arrived at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.
From the start of the week, Then declared this would be her final event as a junior golfer. She has twice delayed orientation at USC, and so will find out what classes she’s taking just days before they begin. That’s a small price to pay for a USGA trophy.
Then had called this tournament, the national championship for girl golfers, the one she really wanted. It would end her junior career on a positive, and maybe more importantly, it would represent the definitive end of a slump that had plagued her game for much of the past year.
“I feel like those months after the last summer and fall, my game wasn’t that great and my mental attitude was down,” she said. “My confidence was not there. I felt like those months of preparation and building up the consistency in my game paid off this week.”
By week’s end, Then had played 117 holes of match play, and had not trailed over a single hole. Her matches were even for just 17 of those holes.
Even Then began to notice a pattern in the way her matches tended to flow around Sycamore Hills. Then would take a big lead in the opening holes, lose a few down the stretch, but nearly always close out a match with holes to spare. The 36-hole final excluded, she calls the biggest test her 2-and-1 semifinal victory over Megan Khang.
Then birdied two of her first three holes Saturday in the final against Lakareber Abe, and was 2 up at the fourth tee. Abe pulled to even by No. 9, but Then won five consecutive holes on the back nine and took a 4-up lead into lunch. She continued to go for the throat early in the afternoon, winning the first hole of the second 18.
Then was concentrating only on keeping the ball in play and wanted to make Abe do the work.
“In order for her to beat me she would have to make birdies here and there,” she said.”I’m not going to just give it to her by making bogeys.”
Abe rose to the occasion. The 17-year-old from Angleton, Texas, with whom Then had shared a room at two tournaments earlier this summer, began to chip away at Then’s lead. She won four holes in a row beginning at No. 4, and pulled to all square at No. 14.
“I just told myself to keep fighting,” Abe said.
The next two holes turned out to be Then’s defining moments of the championship. Lacking considerable length on Abe, who was hitting 3-wood as far as Then was hitting driver for much of the day, Then pulled her tee shot into trees on the left side of the par-5 15th. From there, she hit a low 3-wood that bounced off a bridge and into a water hazard. She took a penalty shot and a drop, landed her next shot on the green from 210 yards and suddenly was back in the hole. Lakareber had hit her approach into a grass bunker.
“I was like, ‘This is not the time to go 1 down, you don’t have time for this,’” Then said.
Then regained control with a two-putt par on No. 16 as Abe three-putted from the edge of the green. When Abe pulled her approach on the 17th, landing in a pine tree, Then made an easy birdie for the victory.
Though the crowd had been heavily in Abe’s corner, shouting “Roll, Tide!” for every Abe victory (she’ll play for Alabama next fall), cheers rang out for Then when she earned this, her long overdue USGA title. Perhaps the loudest cheer came from father Andre Then, standing several yards short of the green. Tears already were forming in his eyes before his daughter dropped that final putt.
Then, a passionate player with a hearty sense of humor, said she fought the urge to join him because “I have to go on camera.” It also wouldn’t be her style. At this point, Then makes a rollercoaster movement with one hand.
“If you watch me, I’m not really, like, emotional on the course,” she said.
Courtesy of her run at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Then also earns a spot in the U.S. Women’s Amateur in nine days. She had missed qualifying by one shot earlier this summer because of a penalty added to her score at the end of the round after a competitor argued that what Then intended as a practice swing was actually an attempted stroke.
That adds an extra week to the summer competition schedule before Then officially becomes a college gal. She’s seeming more and more a Trojan every day.
On Saturday, Then became the third player on this year’s USC roster to claim a USGA title – and the Women’s Amateur still is up for grabs.