Taking Advantage of a Bonus Opportunity July 24, 2017 | Augusta, Mo. By Lisa D. Mickey

Aoife O'Donovan, 18, of Monroe, La., is among 14 players competing in their first U.S. Girls' Junior thanks to new eligibility standards. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

It’s their first time – and their last chance – to compete in a U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

And this week’s 69th championship is an opportunity that 33 players who are now 18 years old did not want to let slip away before their next birthday.

They got that chance when the United States Golf Association announced at last year’s Girls’ Junior that for the first time in history, the age limit would be raised from 17 to 18.

“It’s always been my dream to play this tournament,” said Esther Subin Lee, 18, who was born in Brazil and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. “I don’t want to have any regrets that I didn’t get to try.”

Lee attempted to qualify for the Girls’ Junior two years ago, but said that the sectional qualifying schedule didn’t match up with hers last summer. So when the USGA announced last year that 18-year-olds would be eligible to compete, Lee knew that she had received a bonus opportunity in 2017.

Lee competed in a qualifying event on June 24 in Woodburn, Ore., where she shot 73 to earn one of four places in this week’s championship.

“Honestly, it’s an honor,” said Lee, who hopes to play college golf. “This championship only happens once a year and it’s extremely competitive.”

Aoife (pronounced EE-fuh) O’Donovan of Monroe, La., qualified this year on her first-ever attempt. She said this summer marked the first time she had ever tried to qualify for “any big tournaments.”

A former competitive swimmer in the 100-meter breaststroke and butterfly, O’Donovan said it wasn’t until she was in the eighth grade that she began playing in top-flight golf competition.

Baylee Thompson, 18, of Lapeer, Mich., began playing golf four years ago after competing in soccer and basketball. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

O’Donovan also qualified for the Optimist Junior Golf Championship, which conflicts with this week’s Girls’ Junior, but she knew she wanted to be in Missouri.

“This was really the first summer where I felt like I was good enough to explore the bigger tournaments and try to get in,” she said.

O’Donovan had to exert a little extra energy to earn her place in this week’s championship. There were five available spots in her sectional qualifier in Sugar Land, Texas. The winner of the qualifier shot a 69 and five players – including O’Donovan – each recorded a score of 73, forcing a five-way playoff for four spots.

The five players returned to the par-4 ninth hole at Sugar Creek Country Club, where O’Donovan rolled in her 20-foot, downhill, double-breaking putt to save par.

“I was second to the farthest out on the green and I slammed it into the cup for my 4,” said O’Donovan, who will head to Louisiana State University this fall to play college golf. “That was a very good day.”

O’Donovan said that she is more excited to play than relieved to qualify.

“I felt like I could do it and I did it,” she said. “Now, I’m just hoping to post some good scores to make match play.”

O’Donovan, who opened with a 12-over-par 83, and Lee, who shot 77, are not alone as first-time Girls’ Junior qualifiers at age 18. Of the 33 18-year-old players in this week’s event, 14 are competing in the championship for the first time.

This was also the first year Baylee Thompson tried to qualify for a USGA championship. Having only played golf for four years, Thompson, 18, a former youth soccer and basketball player, got serious about the game late by today’s standards.

She recorded her career-low competitive 18-hole score of 2-under-par 70 during her sectional qualifier at Silver Lake (Ohio) Country Club on June 22. She shot 83 in Monday’s first round of stroke play.

“She went from being a varsity B-team player during her freshman year of high school to earning a spot in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship,” said her father, Bud Thompson, who got his daughter started in the game.

Thompson will play college golf at Ferris State University this fall and will enroll in the school’s PGA Golf Management program, the first of its kind sanctioned by The PGA of America to help prepare students to work in the golf industry.

“It’s already been a great experience for Baylee this week,” her father added. “I’ve told her she belongs in this championship because she’s worked hard and deserves to be here.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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