Gift Becomes Passion for Latvia's Krista Puisite June 19, 2012 | Neshanic Station, N.J. By Stuart Hall

Krista Puisite plays from the fairway on the ninth hole during the Round of 64 on Wednesday. (Hunter Martin/USGA)

Krista Puisite remembers the Christmas she and younger sister Mara received golf clubs as presents. Their father, Aldis, had been to England, seen the courses, experienced the game and thought to himself what a good game for his daughters to enjoy.

"At first we were more interested in building sand castles and chasing after butterflies on the course," said Puisite, 21, of Riga, Latvia. "We did not like it at all."

Apparently, they were not alone.

According to the World Golf Foundation, Latvia features just three golf courses and 120 adult females golfers –  1,133 total if adult males and juniors are included. Also, consider this: Puisite was already 7 when the country’s first course opened on July 11, 1998.

While much of Latvian golf history remains to be written, Puisite authored some at this week’s 36th U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at Neshanic Valley Golf Course. 

Puisite, according to USGA officials, is believed to be the first Latvian ever to play in a USGA championship. After shooting 4-over 148 in stroke-play qualifying, Puisite lost, 1 down, to Lakareber Abe of Angleton, Texas, in the first round of match play on Wednesday..

"I am happy I made it to the match play round," she said. "I know there are so many girls who didn’t make the cut, but I wish I had won. You just never know in match play."

What’s interesting about Puisite’s story is that she has managed to succeed despite her country’s low interest level for the game. Aside from her father’s prodding, she was not raised with all of the resources many players in the United States take for granted.

"Some people think it’s a disadvantage that golf is such a small sport in Latvia, but it’s how you look at it," said Puisite, a senior at Texas State University. "Because there were so few of us, I think we were fortunate."

Puisite said she, her sister and one other player were often in the mix for limited national team slots. Puisite, for example, represented Latvia in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in 2008 and 2010 — finishing 29th and 45th, respectively.

Had she lived another country, such an opportunity may not have materialized or she may have been lost in the shuffle.

Given the small number of players in Latvia, some might question the talent of the fields, but Puisite won the Latvian Juniors Championships in 2008 and 2009, the Latvian Amateur in 2008 and 2011, and the Latvian Open in 2011.

"The competitiveness is what I like," said Puisite, saying the game took hold of her at age 15. "Because golf is not a popular sport in Latvia, we got to go to all of these big tournaments like the European Young Masters, the European Team Championships … just all of the big ones. And you see all these good players and play with them, and you see you can be that good, and that just pushed me."

In addition to her European experience, a couple of trips to the Junior Orange Bowl International Golf Championship in Coral Gables, Fla., in 2008 and 2009, attracted the attention of top collegiate programs such as Texas and North Carolina.

Puisite settled on Texas State, a Southland Conference school looking to make a name for itself just like Puisite. It’s been a great experience, said Puisite, a business administration major on the Dean’s List. 

In February 2011, she won her first collegiate title. Twice in three seasons she has led Texas State in scoring average, and as a sophomore she ranked 48th in the nation in greens in regulation.

The collegiate success has made Puisite rethink her future.

"When I actually came to college, I thought maybe I’d do my major and go into that," she said. "But then I decided this is what I wanted to do. It’s just so much fun, you’re playing golf."

Certainly more fun than building sand castles or chasing butterflies.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA championship websites.