Friends Are Friendly Rivals For a Change July 25, 2013 By Stuart Hall

Gabriella Then, of Upland, Calif., defeated Megan Khang, 2 and 1, Friday afternoon to advance to the championship match. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Gabriella Then and Lakareber Abe have gotten to know each other playing on the junior golf circuit, and twice in the past couple of months they have roomed together. That down time gave them an opportunity to become good friends.

For posterity’s sake, they posed together in front of the scoreboard at the 65th U.S. Girls' Junior Championship at Sycamore Hills Golf Club on Friday. The photo celebrated their advancing to Saturday's 36-hole championship match, which will put their friendship on hold for a few hours. 

The finale, which begins at 8 a.m. EDT, will mark the first time the two 17-year-olds have been paired in either stroke or match play.

"I think at the end of the day we're both out there for the same thing, so it doesn't really matter," said Abe, of Angleton, Texas.

Well, it will matter a bit more for the champion, who receives a two-year exemption into the U.S. Women's Amateur, for which Abe has already qualified this year. The runner-up is also exempt into this year's U.S. Women's Amateur. Should Abe win, she will also receive an exemption into next year's U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.

Also for Abe, whose parents are originally from Uganda, there is a bit of history on the line. A victory would make her the first African-American female to win a USGA individual championship.

Abe was the first to advance late Friday afternoon, winning 1-up over Bethany Wu, 16, of Diamond Bar, Calif., who, at No. 32, had the highest Women's World Amateur Golf Ranking of the four semifinalists. Then, of Upland, Calif., went on to close out Megan Khang, 15, of Rockland, Mass., 2 and 1.

Fatigue should be a non-issue on Saturday as both have played 82 holes this week, the shortest match by either one being Then's 6-and-4 victory over Cheyenne Knight in Thursday's third round.

"I'm looking forward to a really great match with Lakareber," said Then, who will attend the University of Southern California this fall. "We're really good friends. So it's going to be fun."

As fun as playing each other will be, reaching this point has been an arduous journey. Prior to this week, neither had ever reached the semifinals of a USGA championship. Part of the reason involved struggles with their games.

"Last summer, I was not doing really well," Then said. "I was driving it poorly and my head wasn't in the right place. I worked really hard for months and months and months trying to stay consistent in my swing and have the right mental attitude. So yeah, I think it has paid off."

Abe's maturation has been more about improving her short game, which has been on display daily this week. Abe, who has committed to attend the University of Alabama in 2014, is so comfortable with her short game now that she believes she is capable of turning a match in her favor with shots from 110 yards and in. 

"I've been working really hard for the past two years, especially since I moved to the [Jim McLean Junior Golf Academy]," she said. "We've really worked hard on my short game wedges and putting a lot more. So it's all coming together now."

Then believes she and Abe will be just fine on the course on Saturday.

"I think I'm a friendly player," Then joked.

They first roomed together at the Scott Robertson Memorial Tournament in Roanoke, Va., in mid-May. Then won that event, while Abe finished 12th. A month later at the American Junior Golf Association's Rolex Girls Junior Championship in Cape Girardeau, Mo., they were roommates again. Abe tied for 20th, while Then tied for 51st.

As Abe spoke about advancing to the championship, she wore on her wrist a plastic bracelet given to her by the academy she attends. Inscribed on the bracelet are the words, "Win Each Day."

"It just means get better at something each day, whether it's golf, or school, or mental," said Abe, adding that on Friday she learned that every day in match play is a test. "There are some matches you're just going to have to fight, fight, fight and see what happens."

That is the expectation for Saturday's championship final. In the end, though, Then and Abe will likely hug and exchange pleasantries, their friendship still very much intact.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.