U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Clemente, 11, Embracing Spotlight at Old Waverly
August 5, 2019 | West Point, Miss.
By David Shefter, USGA
The first thing Gianna Clemente noticed when she arrived for the 119th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Old Waverly Golf Club was the players’ lounge. There were lockers, beverages and sweets. Lots of delights that any 11-year-old would relish.
Before her Sunday practice round, she asked her father, Patrick, if she could grab an ice cream bar.
“I’ve never been treated this way before,” said Clemente. “It’s amazing.”
Clemente has entered another world this week in Mississippi, something most golfers her age rarely experience.
In fact, only two players in the history of this championship have been younger. Lucy Li, 10 years, 10 months and 4 days; and Latanna Stone, 10 years, 11 months and 2 days; qualified in 2013 and 2012, respectively. Li, currently No. 3 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™, is in the 2019 field, but Stone, headed to Louisiana State University this fall, withdrew last week due to a back injury suffered during the U.S. Girls’ Junior two weeks ago. Neither qualified for match play as 10-year-olds, although Li just missed at the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.), shooting 81-71.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience when you first play in this championship,” said Stone, who carded rounds of 82-78 at The Country Club in Pepper Pike, Ohio. “I hope Gianna will just enjoy it and the chance to be there.”
Gianna, along with her dad and mom (Julia), was one of the first competitors to arrive on Friday. The Warren, Ohio, native is trying to absorb every aspect of her first USGA championship. Seeing her name on the range while warming up alongside the game’s best female amateurs only magnified the enormity of this competition.
On Saturday, she chatted with 2015 runner-up Sierra Brooks, a member of the 2016 USA Curtis Cup Team and All-American at the University of Florida, and later that night during the players’ dinner at Mississippi State University’s Humphrey Coliseum, it was announced to the audience that she was the championship’s youngest player. This week, she’ll compete against 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open low amateur Sally Krueger, 50 years her senior.
All of this might be overwhelming to some. For Clemente, who will begin sixth grade in the fall, it’s part of another step in her development. Even her father, a former golfer at Youngstown State who has tried to qualify for USGA championships but never did, was surprised she made it to the U.S. Women’s Amateur this quickly. Patrick signed Gianna up for the U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifiers just three days apart.
“Our expectations were to make the Girls’ Junior, but she didn’t play that well,” said Patrick. “Two days later, she played great.”
Clemente made three consecutive birdies on her second nine in shooting a 1-under 71 at Ford’s Colony Country Club’s Blue Heron Course in Williamsburg, Va., to grab the third and final qualifying spot. After signing her card, Clemente anxiously sat by the scoreboard for what seemed like an eternity to see if her round would hold up. When the last group arrived at 18, she took a deep breath and exhaled when nobody bested her score.
The first phone call was to her grandparents. Tons of text messages from stunned golf friends followed.
Her remarkable accomplishment hit home when she received her official USGA invitation at the end of the qualifier.
“I’m not sure she realized the scope of it,” said Patrick.
When media started calling, Clemente suddenly was thrust into the national spotlight. USA Today, Golf Digest and local TV stations conducted interviews.
Some might be overwhelmed by the extra attention. Clemente has handled it with aplomb.
Ever since a plastic golf club was placed in her hand nine years ago, this is what she’s wanted to do. Her first competitive events came three years later at age 5. In 2017, she advanced to the national finals of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club in the Girls 7-9 division. Last year, she won the IMG World Championship (10-11 division) and the U.S. Kids World Championship (11), the latter her second title, having claimed the first in 2016. In all, Clemente has amassed 100-plus junior victories. Next March when she turns 12, she’ll be eligible for American Junior Golf Association events.
The last 18 months, Clemente has tried to play events with older players to build up her resumé. During the winter months, the family will go to Naples, Fla., where she works with instructor Spencer Graham out of Quail Creek Country Club, site of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship.
“You watch her get better and better … [and] see her development,” said Patrick Clemente. “You don’t think they are going to get to something at this stage this fast. Again, we’re keeping it in perspective and learning from it. She’ll be better just from going through this.”
Most of Clemente’s friends are golfers she has met through tournaments. This week, however, she doesn’t know anyone except for 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior runner-up Alexa Pano, a Floridian. She had scheduled a practice round with Stone before her withdrawal. Stone, however, did offer some sage advice.
“Thinking back to when I was 10 at the Women’s Am, I wish I had been a little less hard on myself,” said Stone. “I was only 10 and I was intimidated, but I tried to have fun.
“Fortunately, I qualified again when I was 12 and when I was 14, so I had other opportunities to play in it.”
Outside of experience, length might be Clemente’s biggest obstacle at Old Waverly, a course that measures 6,500-plus yards. Most of Clemente’s competitions take place on layouts in the low 6,000s. Although she can hit her driver 230 yards, the 5-foot-1 golfer is using her 4- and 5-hybrid as well as her 3-wood for many approaches into the longer par 4s. The longest iron in her bag is a 6. During the practice rounds, Clemente developed a game plan with her father/caddie, knowing her short game will be critical to shooting a good score.
But the actual result is secondary to enjoying the experience. Nobody expects Clemente to go deep into the draw, or even qualify for match play. Lexi Thompson, one of her idols, reached the quarterfinals at 12 in 2007 at Crooked Stick a few months after qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. And Kimberly Kim won the title at Pumpkin Ridge at 14 – to this day, Kim remains the youngest Women’s Amateur champion.
Someday, Clemente can see herself in that role. She wants to play on USA Junior Solheim Cup and Junior Ryder Cup teams. She’d love to play in the Curtis Cup Match. Patrick says Gianna has watched Gerina Piller’s decisive 12-foot putt in the 2015 Solheim Cup more than 300 times.
But those are far-off dreams. Clemente’s focus is solely on enjoying each moment from the 119th U.S. Women’s Amateur. She knows there will be first-tee nerves, but she embraces them.
“I don’t care about what I shoot,” said Clemente. “It’s about enjoying the experience.”
And some ice cream bars.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Florida-based freelance writer Lisa D. Mickey contributed to this story.