Change of Heart Gives O'Sullivan Crack at Second Title August 7, 2017 | Chula Vista, Calif. By Bill Fields

Hannah O'Sullivan, the 2015 champ, is back in the Women's Amateur after missing last year due to a scheduling conflict. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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After nine holes of practice at San Diego Country Club on Sunday, Hannah O’Sullivan putted. And putted. And putted some more. Three-footers and 6-footers, 10 balls in a circle, stroking one after another trying to groove her stroke so that attempts from those crucial lengths become automatic – not that anything in golf ever is.

Golf is an important element of O’Sullivan’s life – as it is for all of the players in the 117th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship – but it isn’t the only thing.

O’Sullivan, 19, who won the Robert Cox Trophy in 2015 with a 3-and-2 victory in the 36-hole final over Sierra Brooks at Portland (Ore.) Golf Club, was planning to turn professional last year – to pursue her LPGA Tour dreams sooner rather than later, without going to college, the route many precociously talented women are choosing.

But O’Sullivan, who was born in Singapore and lives in Chandler, Ariz., withdrew from LPGA Qualifying School, bucking the current trend. In the period following  her high school graduation, she traveled with her father, Greg, and mother, Sarah, to compete in two major championships for which she was exempt due to her U.S. Women’s Amateur triumph.

She tied for 69th in the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle, but a scheduling conflict with the Ricoh Women’s British Open kept her from defending her Women’s Amateur title last year. She also made a decision to enroll at Duke University – after originally signing with the University of Southern California during her senior year of high school – where she’ll join the nationally prominent women’s golf team while studying economics.

“I’m so happy with the decision,” O’Sullivan said Sunday, taking a 15-minute break from her putting practice. “I think it’s the right choice for me, the best fit. I wanted to take time last year to think about it and explore all my options. Everyone is different. There are so many players doing great who have turned pro at 18 or 19 years old. I was able to experience the tour. I enjoyed it. It made me sure it’s what I want to do some day, but the college experience is really important to me. I have time. And I realized I wasn’t able to give up the college experience and the education, of being able to make lifelong friends.”

Sarah, who caddied for O’Sullivan when she won the Women’s Amateur two years ago and is by her side again this year, agrees that there is no need to rush.

“Everybody is different,” Sarah said. “Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson and Nelly Korda – it was right for them. They had the passion [to turn pro]. It is Hannah’s desire and dream to go to college. As long as she has the passion to work hard, the doors for her will still open four years later. Being 22 or 23 is not old.”

O’Sullivan said her gap year between high school graduation and now was enjoyable and valuable. She played on the 2016 USA Curtis Cup Team in the Republic of Ireland, and she visited her mother’s relatives in the Republic of Korea. But by the end of her journeys, she was “a little hungry to get back in the classroom.” She already completed a course at Duke this summer: Economics 101.

“I got an A-plus and really enjoyed it,” O’Sullivan said. “I was definitely a little rusty at first, not studying for a year, but it was good to get back into academics and used to my surroundings. I roomed with one of my teammates, [2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur runner-up] Virginia Elena Carta, and we had a blast. We only had a five-minute walk to classes from our dorm. I’ll be in freshman housing, rooming with a tennis player this fall. I’m really excited for what’s going to come this year.”

Her golf education is ongoing. O’Sullivan is attempting to get back to the swing with which she won a USGA championship.

“I was trying to improve my swing a little bit, and it went in not exactly the right direction,” O’Sullivan said. “I was trying to flatten and shorten my swing a little too much. I’m working to loosen it up some and get my tempo back. I feel when I’m hitting it the best, I’m doing things the most natural way.”

O’Sullivan’s parents sensed Hannah had good instincts for the game when she was a toddler who loved to play miniature golf. “When she was a 3-year-old, she taught me how to putt,” Sarah said. “She went, ‘Mom, do it like this.’”

These days, her mother offers wise counsel to Hannah. O’Sullivan loves numbers and participated in an international math competition when she was in middle school. She has to be wary not to overthink the game.

“I’m always going to be trying or thinking too much,” Hannah said. “I am a numbers person, very analytical. I realized I have to scale it back sometimes. Mom helps me with that, keeping me upbeat and happy on the course, balancing things out a bit. She’s really good at keeping my mindset in the right place. It’s really special to be able to share all these experiences with her. I’m so glad she is back here with me.”

No more, though, than O’Sullivan is glad to be back herself.

“I’m really excited to be back,” said O’Sullivan, who advanced to match play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur when she was 12. “The USGA puts on amazing events. I’m just enjoying every moment, and I’m going to try to chase it down again.”

At one point, it looked as if O’Sullivan’s swan song in the Women’s Amateur would be her triumph in Portland. But her decision to attend college gives her a chance for a second national title.

“Because of winning, so many wonderful opportunities came her way,” Sarah said. “For us, it was such a great honor. Hannah loves golf, and this is the biggest amateur event in the world. I just couldn’t believe it. I still cannot believe it. I cannot believe such a beautiful trophy was in her bedroom for one year.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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