Fast Course Work

Times Staff Writer

Imagine what it would be like to have no high school memories. No prom dress. No yearbook photos. No graduation ceremonies.

Kimberly Feliciano says she doesn't miss them. How could she? The 17-year-old skipped high school and is now a senior at UC Riverside, where she competes for the women's golf team and has been recognized as a top scholar athlete.

She began playing for Riverside when she was 15, an accomplishment university officials believe made her the youngest to have played on a college athletic team. She has one more year of athletic eligibility remaining, although she has completed enough coursework to make her a senior academically.

Feliciano muses about why anyone would think that her situation is unique.

"I am not brilliant. I have to study hard to pass my English classes," she said.

A budding fiction writer who writes a weekly diary on the campus Web site, Feliciano attended elementary school through third grade and then was mostly home-schooled in the small Northern California town of Mount Shasta, where she lived with her mother, Candice, 55, a teacher, and her father Benjamin, 66, who retired after careers in the U.S. military and as an aerospace worker.

"He was a stay-home dad," Feliciano said of Benjamin. "He was Mr. Mom to me."

Benjamin said that when Feliciano was a toddler he would take her along when he visited the driving range.

"One day I took one of his clubs, choked up on it and hit a ball," Feliciano said. "He saw something in me and got the pro and I had my first lesson."

The club was a five-iron and the ball went about 50 yards. She was 8 at the time, but Feliciano quickly became a well-known figure in the tiny, tight-knit community at the base of the 14,000-foot mountain after which it was named. A year later, she was playing in amateur tournaments in three states -- some of them against older boys. She was also tops in her studies.

In 1999 -- about the time most 13-year-olds are entering eighth grade -- she passed the state's high school proficiency exam and began taking undergraduate courses at nearby College of the Siskiyous. She also scored 1,120 out of 1,600 -- a mark many college-bound high school seniors would be proud of -- on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

In 2000, she competed in golf at Siskiyous, where she earned an associate's degree and was chosen the most valuable golfer of the Bay Valley Conference. Feliciano and her family soon realized that she could parlay golf -- and her good grades -- into a partially paid-for education at a four-year institution.

"The [women's] program here was new and I needed players," Riverside Coach Paul Hjulberg said. "She called me on the phone."

Feliciano told the coach how old she was, but that didn't dissuade him.

"I told her to send me a videotape of her swing and her tournament history," Hjulberg said.

The coach liked what he saw. Benjamin said that he and Candice decided that Feliciano wasn't mature enough to live alone in a dormitory, so they moved with her to Beaumont when she enrolled at Riverside. Candice, who taught elementary school in Mount Shasta, found a job as a resource specialist at Moreno Valley Canyon Springs High.

Benjamin describes Feliciano, an only child, as a voracious reader who devours screen plays and often falls asleep on the floor of her bedroom with a book in her hands. Her room is cluttered with keepsakes and trinkets not unlike what most teenage girls have, but it does not contain a bed.

"I sleep on the floor because it's better for my back," she said.

Feliciano is majoring in creative writing with emphasis on fiction. In a recent column on the campus Web site she showed a self-deprecating sense of humor, poking fun at herself for her recent difficulty putting.

"I really think you might find it enjoyable to hear me rake myself over the coals," she wrote.

Later, she added, "At times on a golf course, your brain is the most important part of your game, though there also comes a point when you need to turn your brain off.... I'm still working on that aspect of the mental war."

She appears to have handled the transition from small town to big city well, according to all accounts.

"She really fits right in," said classmate Eva Martin, 21. You'd think she was 20 or 21 years old. When I learned that she was only 16 [when I met her], I was shocked. She is so mature."

Last season, Feliciano was the Highlanders' leading golfer with a stroke average of 81.3 in 17 rounds. Lately, she has struggled with putting and is the team's No. 2 golfer, but she has dropped her average nearly two strokes and has Riverside's lowest round, a 74. Nationally, she ranks 501 out of 3,152 college golfers.

On Monday this week, Feliciano hit on the driving range at the PGA of Southern California Golf Club at Oak Valley in Calimesa, then moved to its undulating practice green to work on her putting.

Fighting a stiff, cold breeze by applying liberal amounts of lip balm, she spoke of how excited she was to have recently obtained her driver's license -- not so she could whisk friends around on weekends but because the club requires one for cart privileges.

Later in the day, she shuttled men's team golfers around the course as part of a college tournament being hosted by UC Riverside. "This is the first time I can drive one of these things legally without getting arrested," she joked.

Feliciano, a junior member at the PGA club, is well recognized on the course.

When she wasn't busy picking up riders, she stopped for conversations with teammates along the cart paths. Talk wandered from which men's golfer was the best looking, to spring fashion, to how the course played.

As for how she feels about missing high school, Feliciano says she's still not sure why people think it was such a big deal.

"I don't know," she said. "People tell me that my situation is amazing, but I don't have any idea what I missed."

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