Lakareber Abe falls short in rally for USGA history
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Lakareber Abe’s legacy at the U.S. Girls’ Junior will be one of determination. The 17-year-old is proof that even a seemingly insurmountable lead is not safe in a U.S. Golf Association Championship.
Abe, an Alabama commit who plays and boards at the Jim McLean Academy in Fort Worth, Texas, went to the Sycamore Hills lunchroom 4 down on Saturday. Abe struggled to keep pace with Gabriella Then over the first 18 holes as Then came out of the gate with birdies in two of her opening three holes.
“I played well,” Abe said at the end of the day. “You have to know the tournament is never over.”
Abe put that lesson into practice early in the afternoon, as she steadily chipped away at Then’s 5-up lead to bring the match back to all square. Then wasn’t leaving the door open for Abe, Abe was forcing her way through. She started her run with birdies at Nos. 5 and 6, won No. 7 with a par, halved No. 8, then won No. 9 with a hard-fought par. Abe hit her approach from a fairway bunker to 15 feet.
Even without the trophy at the end of the championship, Abe will always remember that run.
“I just kept telling myself to keep fighting, it’s match play, anything can happen,” she said. “Gabby could hit a good shot at any time, so I just told myself to keep on playing, try to keep making birdies and see what happens.”
Abe’s game was a lesson in ball-striking and control. Instructor Justin Poynter, who caddied for Abe all week, taught his student how to hit a 3-wood stinger. As a result, she hit only three drivers in 35 holes Saturday at Sycamore Hills.
“It’s a shot that most girls don’t have,” Poynter said of Abe’s go-to tee shot.
With driver in her hand, Abe averages about 260 yards off the tee. It’s one of the areas in which Abe has most improved in the past year, during which she has put single-minded focus on her game.
Abe’s close call in the Girls’ Junior final represents a new landmark in her career. Her previous best finish in a USGA championship was a trip to the quarterfinals at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. When she was 5 down on Saturday, Poynter delivered a crucial line: "We're out here playing for history, we're not out here just playing it for ourselves."
Abe won the next four holes.
Had Abe won the championship, it would have made her the first black female individual champion in USGA history.
This trip to the finals was so important to the Abe family that older sister Tezira, a sophomore at Texas, nearly moved heaven and Earth to get to Fort Wayne at a moment’s notice. After playing the North & South Women’s Amateur a week ago, she went home with Daniela Lendl, to Goshen, Conn.
When Lakareber landed a spot in the final, Tezira bought a plane ticket, hooked a ride to New York with a cousin who also happened to be in the area and got on a plane at 6 a.m. After a short layover in Chicago, Tezira arrived at Sycamore Hills toward the end of the first 18 holes.
She was there, however, for the most important parts: the gutsy run, and when Lakareber needed a shoulder to lean on at the end of the day.