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Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Li-Gillman quarterfinal will be match-play golf at its best at The Golf Club of Tennessee

   Sure, the PGA Championship is going on, but the best golf anyone sees on the planet Friday afternoon might very well be the quarterfinal match between Lucy Li and Kristen Gillman in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Golf Club of Tennessee in Kingston Springs, Tenn.
   You could argue that they are the two best amateur players in the world, the 15-year-old Li from Redwood Shores, Calif. and the 20-year Gillman from Austin, Texas. But there are others who might have a legitimate claim to that title, maybe even Gillman’s Alabama teammate, Lauren Stephenson, who is also alive in Friday morning’s quarterfinals.
   But match play? That’s another argument entirely and these two have the kind of match-play bonafides that few, if any, can, well, match right now.
   Both won two matches Thursday in a long day at The Golf Club of Tennessee.
   Li, No. 9 in the latest Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) reached the quarterfinals with a 2 and 1 victory over Ya Chun Chang of Chinese Taipei.
   Gillman, No. 6 in the Women’s WAGR, rolled to a 5 and 4 decision over Bailey Tardy, a senior at Georgia from Peachtree Corners, Ga. Tardy, a member of the 2016 U.S. Curtis Cup team, might have been softened up a bit with her dramatic win over the hottest junior player on the planet, U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Yealimi Noh of Carlsbad, Calif. Tardy eagled the 23rd hole to finally close out Noh in a second-round match Thursday morning that might be the best of the tournament through three rounds.
   Li and Gillman were teammates on the U.S. Curtis Cup team that dismantled Great Britain & Ireland, 17-3, in June at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. Li won three matches and halved another and relished every second of the show she was putting on. I’ve made this observation before about Li, the girl’s got showmanship. After Quaker Ridge, I don’t think even Gillman would argue that point.
   Gillman became only the third player since the Curtis Cup expanded to 20 matches to put up a 5-0-0 mark, joining Stacy Lewis and England’s Bronte Law.
   Li was the qualifying medalist at the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Poppy Hills and shared medalist honors this week at The Golf Club of Tennessee. In her second-round 66, she hit 18 greens in regulation. She reached the semifinals at Poppy Hills, dropping a hard-fought 1-up decision to fellow teen phenom Alexa Pano.
   I followed the college golf scene a lot last season and Gillman’s play at some point prompted me to observe that steady must be her middle name. Often right around par, if not a little under, Gillman’s bad days never seemed to be worse than 3-over.
   She won three of four matches in the Palmer Cup. With the Crimson Tide trying to nail down an NCAA title at Karsten Creek Golf Club, she won all three of her matches, although Alabama would fall to Arizona in the Final Match.
   With the notable exception of the precocious Li, the college players seem to be taking the U.S. Women’s Amateur back from the junior players who were dominating it earlier in this decade.
   Gillman was part of that trend, capturing the 2014 title at Nassau Country Club as a 16-year-old over fellow 16-year-old Brooke Henderson, who already owns a major championship in her professional career.
   The winner of the Li-Gillman match will get the winner of a quarterfinal match between Canada’s Jaclyn Lee, the Big Ten champion at Ohio State, and Kaylee Benton of Litchfield Park, Ariz. who was a key member of a really strong Arkansas team last season.
   Lee knocked off Elizabeth Wang of San Marino, Calif. on the 20th hole in her round-of-16 match after a surprisingly easy 5 and 4 win in the second round over Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand, who was probably the best freshman of the country at UCLA last season and is No. 7 in the Women’s WAGR.
   It was Arkansas vs. Texas in Benton’s match as the Razorback downed the Longhorns’ Emilee Hoffman, a junior from Folsom, Calif., to earn her spot in the quarterfinals.
   A third member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team and Gillman’s teammate at Alabama, Stephenson, pulled out a 1-up victory over Yuka Saso of the Philippines. Saso was just 15 when she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur two years ago at Rolling Green Golf Club. She reached the round-of-16 with a 3 and 2 victory over Haley Moore, a key member of Arizona’s NCAA championship team from Escondido, Calif.
   Stephenson of Lexington, S.C. and No. 5 in the Women's WAGR was routinely spectacularly for the Crimson Tide in the 2017-’18 season. Her average was 69.76. Average. It was the lowest total since Golfstat started giving out an award for the best scoring average 20 years ago.
   Stephenson’s bid for a U.S. Amateur title a year ago at San Diego Country Club was halted in the quarterfinals when 13-year-old Chia Yun Wu of Chinese Taipei beat her on the 30th hole, the longest scheduled 18-hole match in USGA history. It went down as a loss for Stephenson, but it was a win on so many levels. She was tough, talented, patient, fearless, relentless, resilient, clutch and gracious in defeat.
   Her opponent in Friday’s quarterfinals will be 2015 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Lauren Greenlief, at 27 the veteran of the eight quarterfinalists. Greenlief had to go 19 holes to get past Annabell Fuller, the 16-year-old who was one of several talented teens on GB&I’s Curtis Cup team at Quaker Ridge.
   I know it doesn’t sound like the Alabama women’s golf team needs reinforcements, but the Crimson Tide will add Jiwon Jeon to the lineup. Jeon reached the quarterfinals with a hard-fought 2-up over a rejuvenated Sierra Brooks, a junior at Florida from Lake Mary, Fla. and the runnerup in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Portland Country Club.
   The South Korean was one of the top players in junior college golf at JUCO powerhouse Daytona State College the last two years. Jeon and Daytona State College were competitive with Division I colleges that came south early in the spring part of the season to play in tournaments.
   Jeon’s opponent in the quarterfinals will be Baylor senior Gurleen Kaur of Houston, who claimed a 2 and 1 win over Beatrice Wallin of Sweden. Kaur was a key player on a Baylor team that lost in a playoff to eventual national champion Arizona for the eighth and final berth in match play at Karsten Creek.

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