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Young Lehigh Valley golfers shooting for U.S. Open
Gabrielle Weiss thought it was a good idea, but her father needed convincing. Could his 13-year-old, 80-pound daughter really qualify for the U.S. Women's Open? Should she even try?
''He didn't think so, but I changed his mind,'' Weiss said. ''It's going to be a challenge, but I have confidence.''
As women's golf skews younger, the teen-agers think they own the place. Nowhere is that more evident than the U.S. Women's Open, where more and more qualifiers aren't even old enough to drive their Lexus courtesy cars.
Among the 1,058 players who begin U.S. Women's Open qualifying today are four local girls with aspirations of a tee time at Saucon Valley Country Club in July. Weiss joins Samantha Wagner, 12, of Easton; Sarah Brown, 17, of Phillipsburg; and Stani Schiavone, 16, of Bangor at local qualifying, the first stop on the 54-hole road to the Old Course.
Wagner, Weiss and Schiavone are playing today at the Country Club of York, where 68 players will compete for 16 spots in the final stage of Women's Open qualifying: the 36-hole, one-day sectional in June. Brown is playing at Rockleigh (N.J.) Country Club, where 55 players will compete for 15 spots at sectionals.
Two other players with local ties hit the qualifying circuit this week. Easton's Carly Hunt, a Georgetown University senior who earned all-Big East honors this season, will play today at York. And Naples, Fla., resident Holly Vaughn, a Freedom High graduate who began playing golf at Saucon Valley in the 1970s, will play in Wednesday's local qualifier in Florida.
Teens have begun making a significant impact upon the Women's Open in the past few years. In 2007, 24 players under age 20 qualified for the tournament, including Alexis Thompson, the youngest ever at 12 years, 4 months and 1 day. Last year, 27 teens qualified, and Inbee Park became the championship's youngest winner at 19.
''It would just be really cool to make it,'' Weiss said.
A seventh-grader at Eyer Middle School, Weiss has been playing competitively for four years, giving up skiing to focus on golf. She has finished first or second in seven straight International Junior Golf Tour events since last year, including wins this spring in Hershey and at the Architects Club.
Following that run, Weiss, who lives in Macungie and plays at Brookside Country Club, asked her dad if she could apply to qualifying (he relented). Though this will be the longest tournament course (at 6,500 yards) she has played, Weiss holds an eager attitude.
''The distance is going to be tough, but my short game will help me a lot,'' Weiss. ''I'm just really positive, for some reason.''
Wagner is used to being the youngest girl around. Last year, she was both the youngest entrant into Women's Open qualifying and the youngest player in the field at the U.S. Girls' Junior.
In 2007, Wagner and her brother C.J. left Moravian Academy to attend Windermere Prep in Orlando, where they also take lessons at the David Leadbetter Academy. Wagner, a sixth-grader, was the only girl on the boys varsity golf team last fall. In December, she won her age group at the Doral-Publix Junior Golf Classic in Miami.
Length was an issue for Wagner at last year's Women's Open qualifier in Lancaster, where she shot a frustrating 85. Now, she's about 20 yards longer off the tee (hitting driver about 220) and significantly more confident.
''I've been thinking a lot about [qualifying],'' Wagner said. ''When I go out and practice, I think about the putts I have to make and the key shots I have to practice. I can't wait.''
Brown also is playing in her second Women's Open qualifier (she last tried in 2007). Ranked 24th on the current Polo Juniors list, Brown expects to finish her amateur career this year with a few AGJA national events, the U.S. Girls' Junior and the Junior PGA Championship.
Since her AGJA-sponsored ACE grant expires this year, and since she has no plans to attend college (a requirement of the ACE grant), Brown instead hopes to turn pro this fall and qualify for the Futures Tour. She worked intently toward that goal this winter, spending much of the season practicing in Florida.
''I would absolutely love to play at Saucon, and I'm really, really hoping to play well [in qualifying],'' Brown said. ''I know I have the game to do it. It's a matter of whether I decide to bring my game with me.''
Schiavone, a sophomore at Bangor High, hasn't played much this year, limited by the weather and her spring track schedule (she placed sixth in the discus at districts last week). But she did win the Myrtle Beach Junior Shootout by six shots in April.
Last year, Schiavone shot an 8-over 79 at local qualifying to earn a spot as the youngest player at the sectional qualifier in Maryland. That finish motivates her second try.
''I have so many people around who would be able to support me [at the Women's Open] that it would be a dream if it would happen,'' Schiavone said. ''I can't expect it. But I can hope.''