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Playing Opportunities Dwindling for Top Women Amateurs

 It was the kind of exciting climax that makes golf fun to watch. Woods had struck the ball better and made more birdies than everyone else in the field, but still trailed by two shots with four holes to play because of a shaky putter. Then, on a treacherous par-5 over water, a perfectly struck 5-wood rolled to within 15 feet. A few minutes later, the eagle putt hung on the lip for a split second before falling. Another 12-footer for birdie at 17, followed by a knee-knocking three-footer for par at the last, and Woods would win by two.

     Only this wasn’t Tiger Woods: it was his niece Cheyenne, a rising junior at Wake Forest, who, along with her partner, Michelle Shin, won the inaugural Hooters Women’s Collegiate Team Championship in dramatic come-from-behind fashion over Brooke Pancake and Jennifer Kirby from the University of Alabama.

     Organized and run by the National Golf Coaches Association, the three-day event attracted a world-class amateur field of 108 players from 48 colleges and universities to Achasta Golf Club in the sleepy Appalachian town of Dahlonega, Ga. Oregon State traveled the farthest, but Cal State-Fullerton, Boise State, UC Davis and Princeton all made the trip for one simple reason: as top-flight women’s amateur golf went, this was the only game in town, and one of only a handful of summer options available to college-aged amateur women.  

     “We felt like there was this need for high-level, national women’s amateur competition in the summertime,” said Roger Yaffe, executive director of the NGCA. “If you look at the women’s amateur championship schedule after the NCAAs, you have the major USGA events, and the prestigious events like the North and South, but beyond that most of the women’s amateur summer schedule is local.” 

     That is a concern. The best amateur men can play almost every week in the summer, and kids 18 and under have even more options. The AJGA has 93 events in a calendar year. Throw in the U.S. Junior, the Junior World Championship, the Kathy Whitworth Invitational, and a few others, and it’s easy to see that top-ranked 17-year-old girls have more options than most pros, and infinitely more competitive opportunities than the average 20-year-old college junior. 

     “It’s a problem,” said Cheyenne’s partner, Michelle Shin, a rising sophomore at Wake Forest who won the ACC individual title as a freshman. “Once you hit college, for the summer you’ve got the Public Links, the Women’s Am, the (U.S. Women’s) Open, if you get in, and the North and South, and that’s about it. There are really not a lot of top-level tournaments like this.”

     That lack of competitive outlets is one of the factors pushing women into the professional ranks earlier than ever, a trend that makes stars like Amanda Blumenherst, who was the three-time national college player of the year and a Magna Cum Laude graduate at Duke, an almost freakish anomaly. How bad has it gotten? Since the NCAA Championships in May, Arizona State has had three of its top players turn pro. Going into this year’s fall schedule, the seven-time NCAA champions have a total of two scholarship athletes left on their roster. 

     “Many of these women need to realize that they are much better off staying in school,” Yaffe said. “I can’t tell you how many I’ve seen who turn pro early, and you’ll see their names for a year or two with some status on the LPGA Tour, and then you’ll see them on the Duramed Futures Tour, and then in Europe, but then you won’t see them anymore. I hate to say it, but that’s the majority and not the minority.”

     The lure of money and more tournaments is compelling, but with the noteworthy exceptions of Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie, it is hard to name a single LPGA star that has had breakout success prior to the age when she would have been out of college anyway.  

     Plus, nothing beats draining a couple of crucial putts down the stretch to win one for your school. Just ask Cheyenne Woods. 

     “We were running out of holes and needed to get going,” she said. “It felt great to make that eagle putt at 15. Then Michelle birdied 16, and I birdied 17. This really helps our confidence with the summer almost over.” 

     As for her future, Cheyenne is showing the wisdom and maturity that used to be ascribed to her more famous uncle. “I’ll be at Wake Forest for two more years,” she said. “After I graduate I plan on turning pro and playing the Futures Tour maybe for a year, and then trying to make my way to the LPGA.”

     No plans to turn pro early? 

     She just smiled and shook her head. “Absolutely not.”  


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