Sierra Brooks was pretty close to the top of the world in women’s amateur golf when she arrived at Rolling Green Golf Club for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
She had been the runnerup in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Portland Country Club the previous year and played on the United States Curtis Cup team in the spring of 2016. The U.S. lost to a powerful Great Britain & Ireland team at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club just outside of Dublin.
It all had to be pretty heady stuff for a kid who was just out of high school. She was headed for Wake Forest and some big-time college golf. The LPGA Tour seemed inevitable.
But golf and life, not necessarily in that order, don’t always go in a straight line. Hardy ever, really.
Brooks didn’t make match play at Rolling Green. Her freshman season at Wake Forest was marked by injury and confusion. Last summer Brooks, still not completely healthy from the wrist surgery she had in December of 2016, gave the first stage of LPGA Qualifying School a shot, which only reinforced the reality that she wasn’t ready to be a professional golfer yet.
As an eighth-grade phenom, Brooks had committed to Florida, eventually reconsidering and going instead to Wake Forest. Maybe that first instinct was the right one. It sure seemed right in the fall of 2017. She would become a Gator after all.
Joining the Gators in January, Brooks was immediately the best player on a team that had lost several key players to graduation and professional golf from a powerful Southeast Conference champion.
And this week she is back at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, a grizzled veteran at 20, a survivor.
In Wednesday’s opening round of match play at The Golf Club of Tennessee, Brooks found herself 1-down with seven holes to play to Hailee Cooper, who will join the Texas program in a few weeks as one of the top freshmen in the country, much as Brooks was two summers ago.
But all that experience is still there and Brooks didn’t panic. She got even with a birdie at the par-3 14th, made another 2 at the par-3 16th and then finished off a 2 and 1 victory with a birdie at the 17th.
“It started on No. 14, the par-3,” Brooks told the USGA website. “I stuck one to like four feet and made that for birdie and finally got some momentum and from there was able to finish it off and just keep it going. I hit a lot of good shots coming in.”
It doesn’t get any easier for Brooks, but it never does at a U.S. Women’s Amateur. Brooks knows that, about golf and life. But now she knows adversity is something you can fight through.
Brooks’ second-round opponent is Bianca Pagdanganan of the Philippines, the hero of Arizona’s run to the national championship this spring at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
In what was probably the match of the day, Pangdanganan pulled out a 1-up victory over Albane Valenzuela, the Stanford junior from Switzerland who is No. 3 in the latest Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR). Valenzuela lost in the final of last summer’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at San Diego Country Club.
Pangdanganan and the Wildcats had eliminated their Pac-12 rival Stanford, 4-1, in the semifinals at Karsten Creek. Pangdanganan and Valenzuela didn’t go head-to-head in that match – Pangdanganan edged Valenzuela’s equally talented teammate, Andrea Lee, 1-up – but it was still an interesting dynamic for an Arizona-Stanford match to break out at The Golf Club of Tennessee.
Pangdanganan stuck a nose in front when she won the par-3 14th with a par. And then, showing that clutch gene that was on display for all to see at Karsten Creek, she gutted out four straight halves, including the 17th with birdie, to pull out the victory.
Kristen Gillman knows what it’s like to be the teen phenom at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, having won the 2014 title as a 16-year-old at Nassau Country Club on Long Island.
So the 20-year-old Gillman of Austin, Texas wasn’t going to get ambushed by Ting Hsuan Huang, a 13-year-old from Chinese Taipei, in her opening-round match. Gillman claimed a 3 and 2 victory.
Gillman, No. 6 in the Women’s WAGR, was a sophomore on a powerful Alabama team that reached the NCAA Championship’s Final Match before the Crimson Tide fell to Pangdanganan and Arizona. She was a perfect 5-0-0 as the U.S. blitzed Great Britain & Ireland, 17-3, in the Curtis Cup match at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Gillman played four rounds and finished tied for 27th in the U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek. She went 3-1 in the Palmer Cup matches played in France.
Her teammate at Alabama and on the U.S. Curtis Cup team, Lauren Stephenson of Lexington, S.C., No. 5 in the Women’s WAGR, also advanced Wednesday with a 1-up victory over Stephanie Banque of Australia.
Stephenson reached the quarterfinals a year ago at San Diego Country Club before falling to 13-year-old Chia Yen Wu in 30 holes, the longest schedule 18-hole match in the whole darn history of the USGA. Epic doesn’t quite do it justice. Stephenson will be a tough out again this year.
A third member of the winning U.S. Curtis Cup team still alive at The Golf Club of Tennessee is 15-year-old Lucy Li of Redwood Shores, Calif., the qualifying co-medalist. Li , No. 9 in the Women's WAGR, cruised to a 5 and 3 decision over Adeena Shears of Elizabeth, W.Va., the survivor of a 9-for-1 playoff Wednesday morning that earned her the final ticket into match play.
The one casualty from the U.S. Curtis Cup team was Jennifer Kupcho, the NCAA champion as a junior at Wake Forest this spring, the No. 1 player in the Women’s WAGR. Didn’t seem to matter to Elizabeth Wang of San Marino, Calif., who took down Kupcho on the 19th hole. Wang is preparing to join the program at Harvard in a few weeks.
It's funny how these match-play brackets turn out. A year ago, Mexico’s Isabella Fierro, fresh off a victory in the prestigious North & South Women’s Amateur Championship at Pinehurst, knocked off 12-year-old Alexa Pano, 4 and 3, in the opening round of the U.S. Women’s Amateur at San Diego Country Club.
I noted that it was a measure of Pano’s improvement when she claimed a 4 and 3 victory over Fierro in the second round of last month’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Poppy Hills Golf Course on northern California’s Monterey Peninsula. Pano reached the final at Poppy Hills before falling to Yealimi Noh.
So who does Pano, after finishing tied for fourth in qualifying, draw in the opening round of match play? Fierro, of course.
It was Fierro who turned the tables this time, claiming a 3 and 1 victory. A year ago, I thought Pano’s inexperience showed in falling to Fierro. I don’t think that was the case this time. Fierro just played better.
By the time the sun sets on The Golf Club of Tennessee Thursday, weather permitting, of course, there will be only eight players still standing. There are so many good players still alive going into Thursday’s second round. It is going to be a fascinating day.