KINGSTON SPRINGS, Tenn. – When a brace-faced Kristen Gillman defeated eventual world-beater Brooke Henderson in a 36-hole final at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur, she was anything but a heavy favorite. The 16-year-old Gillman ate pepperoni pizza for six consecutive nights that week on Long Island. She was green compared to Henderson, who at 16 was itching to join the LPGA and take on the likes of Lydia Ko.
“I was kind of new,” said Gillman, “but I think sometimes that it’s better to be oblivious to what’s going on.”
Four years later and Gillman, 20, is one of the hunted this week. After going undefeated at the NCAA Championship for Alabama, Gillman made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open, went 5-0 at the Curtis Cup and won her first professional title on the Japan LPGA of all places, donning a mustard-colored jacket as the winner of the Century 21 Ladies’ Tournament.
As a pro, Gillman would’ve pocketed $140,000, plus a Mercedes.
“A Mercedes is better,” said Gillman, comparing what could’ve been to her Toyota Camry. “But I think the wheel was on the wrong side.”
And yet, despite all of this, Gillman enters this year’s quarterfinals as the lesser-known player, squaring off against 15-year-old Lucy Li, who made national headlines four years ago as the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history at 11 years, 8 months and 14 days. Li was the darling of the championship, eating ice cream during her interviews while wearing red, white and blue.
Co-medalist at this year’s championship, Li looks to win her first USGA title this week. She also earned medalist honors at this year’s Girls’ Junior, where she fell in the semifinals, and made the cut at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open.
Li coasted through her first two matches, winning 5 and 3 in the first round and 7 and 5 in the Round of 32. Li looked up from her putting practice Thursday evening and waved at Gillman as she conducted a post-round interview. The pair were teammates at the Curtis Cup in June and developed a friendship.
“I feel like my mindset has been so much better,” said Li, “a lot calmer on the golf course, you know, even when things aren’t going my way.”
In the Round of 16, Gillman posted seven birdies in 14 holes in a convincing victory over Georgia’s Bailey Tardy. Soft greens at Golf Club of Tennessee led to what three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champ Juli Inkster called a dart show on Thursday.
Gillman is one of three Alabama players to advance to the quarterfinals with Lauren Stephenson staging a strong comeback over Yuka Saso after a weather delay and junior college transfer Jiwon Jeon defeating 2015 Women’s Amateur finalist Sierra Brooks, 2 up.
Jeon won the NJCAA individual title in May for Daytona State College along with four regular-season wins: the SunTrust Gator Invitational, UNF Collegiate, Xavier Collegiate and Lady Paladin. She’ll start with Alabama in the fall.
The 15-year-old Li won’t be the youngest player Gillman has faced this week. Gillman knows from personal experience that age guarantees nothing.
“Yesterday I think I played a 13-year-old,” said Gillman, referring to Ting Hsuan Huang of Chinese Taipei. “Sometimes they have the best chance because they don’t have the expectations. You’ve always have to watch out for the younger players out here.”