Tennessee Teen Trio Combines Competition With Camaraderie October 5, 2017 | SANTA FE, N.M. By David Chmiel, USGA

An all-around effort from Riley Rennell (left), Jayna Choi (center) and Ashley Gilliam put Tennessee in contention entering Round 3. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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Jayna Choi was disappointed to walk off the 18th green with a bogey-bogey-double-bogey finish in Round 2 of the 12th and final USGA Women’s State Team Championship. But she did a happy dance and gave Ashley Gilliam a big hug when Gilliam wiggled her five fingers, as in “I just shot 5 under.”

“I was disappointed to finish the way I did,” said Choi, who shot 3-over 75. “But Ashley’s my teammate. How could I not be happy for her?”

The pair of 16-year-olds stood off to the right of the 18th green, waiting for Riley Rennell, the Round 1 star who kept the team close to the lead with a 4-under 68 on Tuesday. Rennell, the “veteran” of the team at 19, wasn’t happy with a 77 in Round 2, but her teammates were there to lend moral support and a pledge to make the final round special for them all.

“It’s great to have the support of teammates,” Rennell said, “especially when they are your friends.”

Twenty-four hours later, the three Tennessee teammates – with a combined age of 51, they were joined by Delaware and Mississippi as a team comprised solely of teenagers – had won the title. As they tried to comprehend the enormity of the moment, they are just three friends, as skilled and composed as they are fun-loving and giddy at the prospect of banding together to win the championship on the Sunrise Course at The Club at Las Campanas. The trio entered the final round tied for second with Florida, one stroke off New York’s pace.

A day earlier, Gilliam, of Manchester, nearly holed her approach shot into the 18th green, setting up a tap-in birdie to finish the day on a high note as rain began to fall.

“That was a nice way to end the round,” she said, laughing. “I hit an A-wedge and it felt so good when I hit it.”

It was a pretty good way to play the middle of the round, too, when Gilliam birdied holes 4 through 8.

“I had no idea [the streak] was going on,” she said of the birdie barrage. “I just kept hitting good shots and tried to make every putt. That’s the way we talked about playing this championship. Be aggressive when we can and just try to post good scores.”

In the afterglow of the championship, the teammates credited their friendship and respect for staying focused on making birdies and minimizing mistakes, all while maximizing their time together.

“We talk about how beautiful the course is and figure out where the tricky spots are so we can avoid making bogeys,” said Choi, of Collierville. “We have been friends for years, but most of the time we are competing against each other in individual tournaments. It is just so much fun that we can be together and work as a team. Especially on a day like [Wednesday], it’s great to have teammates and build our friendships. We can focus on the round, then hang out and have fun.”

Rennell, of Columbia, said that connection made it possible to find perspective after a tough round.

“We always have each other’s backs,” she said. “It is tough days like these when we realize that three is better than one. Especially if we can lift up that big ole’ trophy at the end of this championship. A USGA championship would look good on our resumes!”

Gilliam and Choi got a laugh about the post-championship reality.

“When we get back home to Tennessee, we head out to play a team tournament, but Jayna will be on the West team and I will be on the East team,” Gilliam said.

“It would be great if we won this before we head home,” Choi said.

So the unified front will continue in Santa Fe.

“It’s a USGA championship. We know how special that is,” said Gilliam. “We wanted to win the last one for Tennessee. How awesome is that?”

And then, three young women – enjoying a quiet room in the Las Campanas to take in the moment and contemplate the enormity of winning a USGA championship – were told that their names and accomplishment would be etched onto a plaque that would live forever in the Hall of Champions at the USGA Golf Museum.

"Are you serious," Rennell asked. The three, suddenly speechless, looked at each other with wide eyes, and began happy dances they will remember forever.

David Chmiel the manager of members content for the USGA. Email him at

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