No Longer a Cinderella Story, Garcia Back to Defend Title September 16, 2016 | Wellesley, Mass. By Rob Duca

Karen Garcia is looking to become the fourth back-to-back winner since the championship switched to a match-play format in 1997. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

U.S. Senior Women's Amateur Home

Karen Garcia received flowers and hugs when she returned to her job as a guidance counselor at Placer High School in Auburn, Calif., last fall after winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at Hillwood Country Club in Nashville, Tenn. But there also was some playful ribbing.

“The joke was that I was like Bill Murray’s character (Carl Spackler) in ‘Caddyshack,’ the Cinderella story who came out of nowhere,” she said. “I had won local and regional events, but nothing close to that big. I still pinch myself. It’s amazing to think that I was able to accomplish this.”

Garcia, who turns 54 on Sept. 24, had never advanced past the Round of 64 in nine previous USGA championships. As a guidance counselor, she preaches to her students the value of patience and determination, qualities that helped her survive six matches in last year’s championship.

“I tell them all the time that if they keep working at something, eventually they will get it,” she said. “I am a perfect example of that. Here I was at age 53 accomplishing something that probably no one expected from me. I did it because I kept grinding, working at it and slowly chipping away.”

This year at Wellesley Country Club, Garcia is attempting to become only the fourth competitor to defend her title since the championship went to match play in 1997. Fittingly for a resident of a town named Cool, she appears completely unfazed by the task.

Several factors explain her unflappable demeanor. Her length off the tee is an advantage at Wellesley, a classic Donald Ross design that is playing to a par 74 for the championship, with six par 5s.

“The par 5s are reachable,” she said, “so if I put my drives in the right places I can get to the green or pretty close.”

Her experience also helps.

“I don’t feel any sense of nervousness,” she said. “Whatever happens, happens. Good week, bad week, it’s OK. I know what it’s like to go through 10 rounds in eight days, and what that physically grueling schedule is like.”

Garcia knows she can handle that physical rigor, which begins on Saturday with the first of two stroke-play rounds. Before she lost 60 pounds three years ago, Garcia would wear down during the final rounds and holes of tournaments, her knees aching under the stress of playing 36 holes a day.

After playing poorly in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, she began a fitness regimen and changed her diet.

“I should have played so well there,” she said of that championship, which was held at Briggs Ranch in San Antonio. “The course was wide open and perfect for me, but I just wasn’t physically able to play the way I wanted. I could never play 36 before; now for the past six weeks, I’ve been playing 36, 27 and 36 every weekend.”

Her fitness kept her focused and allowed her to execute good shots late in last year’s  championship match. Trailing Pamela Kuong by one hole with two to play, Garcia won the final two holes, making a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole. Once the ball disappeared into the hole, she embraced the final source of her on-course confidence: her caddie and husband, Ruben.

Golf has always been a collaborative effort for Karen and Ruben, who just celebrated their 20th anniversary. They met at Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Wash., where Ruben was the superintendent and Karen was working in the snack bar. One day, Ruben approached her on the practice range.

She said: “His pickup line was ‘What are you doing tearing up my driving range?’”

Their first date was on the golf course, where they learned that both were fraternal twins and former softball/baseball players. (Garcia played softball at the University of Oregon and didn’t pick up golf until after college.) Not long after, Garcia made a double eagle at Royal Oaks.

“I thought, ‘Hey, it went in. How cool is that?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘You have no idea what you just did.’”

Ruben seems to bring out Garcia’s best golf. She made a hole-in-one while playing with him on a trip celebrating their five-year wedding anniversary; of course, and he was on her bag last year.

“He calms me down,” she said. “He keeps me talking, and that slows me down because I tend to speed up too much. And he sees things on the green that I might not. He detects subtle breaks, the slopes and the grain from his experience as a superintendent. I don’t even read my own putts. I just wait for him to tell me where to putt it. I trust him totally.”

That trust was never more evident than on Hillwood Country Club’s closing hole.

“We both had tears in our eyes,” she said. “It was a little slider and I don’t know if I would have read it right, so afterward I stood off to the side and I thought, ‘Wow.’ Then I turned and looked at him. It was such a moment.”

Rob Duca is a Massachusetts-based writer who has previously contributed to USGA websites.


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