All-SEC semifinals await at U.S. Women's Amateur after dramatic Friday

USGA/Steven Gibbons

All-SEC semifinals await at U.S. Women's Amateur after dramatic Friday

Amateur

All-SEC semifinals await at U.S. Women's Amateur after dramatic Friday

KINGSTON SPRINGS, Tenn. – Seconds after a teary-eyed Lucy Li walked onto the verandah at The Golf Club of Tennessee, Kristen Gillman walked over and draped an arm around her youthful opponent. Li had suffered a shocking two-foot miss on the 19th hole and lamented to Gillman about being a bad putter.

“I was just telling her she’s a great putter,” said Gillman. “If I was that good when I was 15, I don’t even know what I’d be doing right now.”

It was a touching moment between two Curtis Cup teammates who had formed a nice bond. Gillman didn’t like winning like that. Nobody does. But she’s onto the semifinal, two wins away from a second U.S. Women’s Amateur title.

There’s no telling how many more chances Li will have at the Women’s Am. Given her early start to the game – qualifying for her first USGA event at age 10 – it wouldn’t be surprising if the prodigious 15-year-old had an early start at the professional ranks. Too soon to tell.

What is certain, however, is that this loss will sting for a while. Li made two bogeys in 100 holes of golf in steamy Kingston Springs. The first bogey came on No. 1 in the Round of 64, and the second, now unforgettable one, occurred on the 19th hole in the quarterfinals.

“I’m not sure what happened,” said Li. “I just stood over it. I wasn’t nervous or anything. I felt like I pushed it a little bit, but honestly, I’m not sure what happened.”

Li, a semifinalist at this year’s Girls’ Junior, believes that her game has gone to a completely new level this summer. She’ll represent the U.S. at the Junior Ryder Cup next month in France.

Incredibly, all four semifinalists will be attending SEC schools this fall, with three from Alabama. Arkansas senior Kaylee Benton rounds out the foursome. Benton, who will face Gillman at 8 a.m. local time Saturday, was stoked to see an encouraging tweet from Razorback grad Stacy Lewis going into quarterfinal action. Lewis, a two-time major champion and former No. 1, advanced to the semifinals of this championship in 2006.

Benton has her mother, Shelley, on the bag this week and likes the fact that she can speak her mind.

“I get all the bad thoughts out,” said Benton, “and she fills in with good thoughts.”

Shelley didn’t take up the game until her mid-20s when she married Jeff Benton, who played baseball at Central Arkansas and now plays competitive amateur golf. Kaylee said she’s only now good enough to beat her dad while her mom, a fine player in her own right, knows her swing almost as well her instructor, and can help her make adjustments mid-match.

Benton’s athletic genes stretch back generations as great-grandfather Jim Benton, an all-American wide receiver at Arkansas, won a pair of NFL titles in the 1940s with the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.

Meanwhile in the lower half of the bracket, Lauren Stephenson will square off against Jiwon Jeon, a junior college transfer for the Tide. Stephenson was down two holes to mid-amateur Lauren Greenlief as she made the turn. After being part of the longest match in USGA history last year – 30 holes – Stephenson knows better than most that anything can happen in this format.

Stephenson, 21, birdied four consecutive holes on the back nine to take control of the match. All four birdie putts were within 10 feet.

At lunch on Friday, Stephenson and Gillman talked about the fact that they might meet in the 36-hole final Sunday. It would mark the first time college teammates have met in the final of the Women’s Am in the Title IX era.

“Everyone wants to win a USGA event,” said Stephenson. “They’re the pinnacle of golf.”

Gillman almost pulled out of the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur. She got home from an 11-stroke victory at the Junior PGA at 1:30 a.m. and had a 7 a.m. flight later that day to New York. The family nearly called it a day and stayed home.

No one in the Gillman family could’ve imagined how much that tough turnaround would pay off. A then 16-year-old Gillman won it all.

“We were just happy and dumb,” joked her dad, Mark. “I think she likes playing the underdog.”

Gillman, now 20, is an underdog no longer. One of the hottest players in the amateur game, Gillman delivered in a mighty way on the 18th hole Friday. After trailing most of the match, the always calm and collected Gillman needed to win the 18th to extend the match. From the left-hand rough, Gillman drew a 5-iron around a tree to 6 feet and poured in the putt.

Li then promptly handed it to her on the first extra hole, the par-3 10th, with a three-putt bogey.

Gillman took on four summer school classes this year and will graduate from Alabama in three years next spring. She has signed up for LPGA Q-School but intends to defer until next summer, should she earn a full LPGA card. Stephenson earned a spot in the new LPGA Q Series (the final stage) thanks to being No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

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