WEST POINT – We’ve experienced a highly anticipated election week here in Mississippi, but, globally, much more attention has been paid to a sporting event taking place at pristine and devilishly hot Old Waverly Golf Club just outside this Clay County town of about 11,000.
Here, women, young and old, from 17 countries, five continents and 33 U.S. states have congregated to play for the U.S. Women’s Amateur golf championship. The event is being televised around the world by FS1 network with golfing greats Brad Faxon and Juli Inkster, among the network’s broadcasters.
Inkster, you may remember, won the U.S. Open played here at Old Waverly in 1999. That remains the single most important golf tournament event ever contested in the Magnolia State, but this one, this week, clearly ranks second.
Pat Stubbs, from Holly Springs, made the short trip here not knowing quite what to expect.
“Man, I had no idea what a big deal this tournament is until I got here,” Stubbs said. “This is big-time, a world-class event. I am blown away. This is such a big deal to have a tournament of this magnitude in a small town in Mississippi. I don’t know how they did it, but I’m glad they did.”
The tournament continues through the week until the championship on Sunday.
Credit for bringing a national championship event to Mississippi goes to Old Waverly founder George Bryan, just as it did 20 years ago with the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship 10 years ago.
“We won’t have nearly the crowds for the amateurs as we had for the pros 20 years ago,” Bryan said. “We had crowds of 25,000 on a single day at the U.S. Open, but there’s still an awful lot that goes into putting something like this on. It takes a lot of preparation and work by a lot of people, including nearly 300 volunteers.”
Bryan thought all was ready Sunday afternoon as players went through final practice rounds in preparation for the 36-hole stroke play qualifying Monday and Tuesday.
Then came a Sunday evening thunderboomer that inundated the course with 2.5 inches of rain, turning the fairways into streams and the sand traps into small ponds. Course maintenance workers worked through Sunday night and into Monday morning pumping water out of the bunkers and getting the course ready for play.
They did a splendid job. Old Waverly, wet or dry, remains one of the Deep South’s really special golf layouts – challenging but not overly long, a proper layout for a women’s championship. Expect more USGA events here in the future. “We’ve made sure they know we want to be part of the rotation, and the USGA has been receptive,” Bryan said.
What golf fans have learned here is that where women’s golf is concerned, youth is served – big-time. Average age in the 156-golfer field that began Monday’s qualifying was 19.7. After the 36-hole qualifying, the average age of the remaining 64 contestants for match play was 18.5.
Co-medalists for the stroke-play were 16-year-old Jiarui Jin of the People’s Republic of China and 14-year-old phenom Alexa Pano of Lake Worth, Florida each shot 6-under par 138 for the 36 holes of qualifying. Pano, who will turn 15 in August, is the third youngest medalist in U.S. Amateur history and won the Dustin Johnson World Junior Championship by a whopping 12 shots earlier this year.
When ever she turns pro, Pano will be huge for the LPGA Tour, currently dominated by Asian players and badly needing a new American superstar a’la Nancy Lopez. There’s plenty of competition coming along behind Pano, too, including 11-year old Gianna Clemente of Warren, Ohio, who was the youngest in the U.S. Amateur field but failed to qualify for match play. She’s entering the sixth grade. She’s got time.
Only one native Mississippian, Ole Miss golfer Conner Beth Ball of Starkville, was in the field here. She missed the 36-hole cut for match play, but Mississippi State signee Ashlee Gilliam, 18, of Manchester, Tennessee, qualified at even par 144 and then lost her well-played first-round match to Katie Chipman of Canton, Michigan, on the third extra hole. Gilliam will make State’s golf program better. She presumably will play Old Waverly and neighboring Mossy Oak scores of times over the next four years. It’s difficult to imagine better preparation than playing it first in the U.S. Amateur Championship before you even begin your college career.