Trio of 21-year-olds reach third round of championship dominated by ‘kids’ August 10, 2011 By David Shefter, USGA

Lee Lopez was among a trio of 21-year-old 'veterans' to reach the round of 16 on Thursday. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

Barrington, R.I. – A couple of golfers are putting the term ‘women’ back into the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

With so much discussion about the kiddie corps at this year’s championship at Rhode Island Country Club several old-timers made their way into the third round on Thursday.

That’s if you consider 21 over the hill.

I feel really old, said 21-year-old Brooke Pancake of Chattanooga, Tenn., who dispatched 17-year-old Elyse Smidinger, 2 and 1.

Lately at the Women’s Amateur, anyone over the age of 19 is ready for a rocking chair and a cold glass of lemonade. When the competition started, the average age of the 156-player field was 19.5.

And consider this nugget: Half of the competitors who advanced to Thursday’s round of 32 were under the age of 18. Twenty-three were still teenagers.

I’m not a teen anymore and that [stinks], said 20-year-old Tiffany Lua of Rowland Heights, Calif., a 3-and-2 winner over 13-year-old Mackenzie Brooke Henderson of Canada. But I still act like it.

I don’t even ask [my opponent’s ages] because I’ll feel worse.

Among the final 32 contestants, only Stephanie Kono of Honolulu, Hawaii, was born before 1990.

Kono, by the way, joined the trio of 21-year-olds moving into Thursday afternoon’s third round with a 3-and-2 win over 14-year-old wunderkind Lydia Ko of New Zealand. Ko, one of the co-medalists from stroke-play qualifying, came into the championship as the world’s No. 1 female amateur, according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking supported by The R&A and USGA.

The third 21-year-old, Lee Lopez of Whittier, Calif., edged 20-year-old Stephanie Kim, 2 and 1.

I don’t really remember, said Kono when asked what her mindset was at 14 when she was competing in USGA events. At 14, I played in my third U.S. Girls’ [Junior]. I remember being intimidated and being out there with a lot of really good players.

Perhaps there is something to be said for experience. Kono, competing in her 22nd USGA championship, certainly has seen it all. She has experienced the highs of making it to the semifinals twice (2007 Girls’ Junior and 2008 Women’s Amateur Public Links) and the lows of going out in the first round. Ditto for Lua, a three-time USGA semifinalist, including this year’s WAPL at Bandon Dunes (Ore.) Resort. The 20-time USGA championship participant also advanced to the final four at the 2008 WAPL and 2009 Women’s Amateur.

It definitely helps, said Kono. I think I’ve been in every situation. I’ve definitely learned how to handle myself out there and what to do in certain types of situations.

My mindset today was just to go out there and play my own game. I didn’t almost pay attention [to her].

Added Lua: Especially in match play [experience pays off]. You are put in all these different pressure situations. You learn how to handle it as you get older.

Pancake, a three-time All-American at the University of Alabama, said she can definitely feel a difference at this year’s Women’s Amateur over 2010 when she finished as the No. 4 seed out of stroke play, then lost a 20-hole first-round match to Corinne Carr. That disappointing outcome gave the college senior a better perspective of how to handle herself in match play.

The result has been a pair of victories and a spot in the round of 16 against 15-year-old Nicole Morales.

I have a lot more confidence, said Pancake, a marketing and management major who carries a 4.13 grade-point average. I had a great year at school. I have higher expectations of myself.

Everyone calls it the match-play monkey once you get past the first round. You get through [sectional] qualifying, which is the hardest part. Then you get here and you have to make another cut. Once you get past that first match, you’ve gotten the weight off your shoulders. That was my goal. I was not going to do a repeat of last year.

But is it easier to play a pressure-cooker like the Women’s Amateur when you’re young and impetuous or a veteran who understands the vagaries of this championship?

Kono and Lua were once part of the kiddie corps and now are experiencing the other side of the match-play equation.

I don’t think I had a mindset, said Lua, who first played the Women’s Amateur as a 14-year-old in 2005 at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek Course in Roswell, Ga. I was just trying to hit the ball. Find ball, hit ball. When you are that young, you have no pressure in the world. You’re just out there having fun and just trying to keep up with the big girls. You have nothing to lose.

Pancake, for one, couldn’t fathom performing at this level when she was 15 and 16. In fact, she didn’t play her first Women’s Amateur until last year at the age of 20. But she sees plenty of positives from all the young assembled talent.

It’s kind of exciting where women’s golf is going, said Pancake. The level that they are playing at – when I played four years ago – I wasn’t nearly at the level they are at now. It’s kind of depressing when you look at it that way, but at the same time, with everything that has been going on with the LPGA [Tour], the better they are when they are younger is going to help us [improve].

Of the 16 players remaining in the championship, six are at least 20 and 10 are non-juniors (18 and older). That figure, however, will drop by at least one at day’s end.

That’s because college and 2010 USA Curtis Cup teammates Lua and Kono are squaring off in one of the eight matches Thursday afternoon. Kono owns a 2-0 advantage, having won matches at the 2007 and 2009 WAPLs. The two UCLA standouts practice regularly and the banter is usually lively, which should make for an interesting match.

We’ll smack-talk each other during practice and play little games with each other, said Lua, a psychology major. I’m just excited. I am looking forward to this afternoon.

At least they’ll be picking on someone their own age.

David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at dshefter@usga.org.