CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | Every year we get one, an amateur, a club pro, a journeyman or woman who toils in the minor leagues or in some far-off land. For one day they find lightning in a bottle and vault up the leaderboard in a U.S. Open.
Remember Dave Schreyer? Probably not. In addition to being the all-time leading money winner on the Hooters Tour, Schreyer posted an early round of 2-under par at Congressional Country Club to lead before lunch in the 1997 U.S. Open – the one where 500 media members followed Tiger Woods’ every shot after his first Masters win. Schreyer was T6 by the end of Thursday and out of the running not long thereafter. He is now the head men’s golf coach at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala.
How about Kelli Shean? Shean, a junior at Arkansas at the time, fired an opening-round 70 at Oakmont in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open, eventually won by Paula Creamer. That left her tied for second. She tumbled down the leaderboard on Friday and now runs her own golf academy in Little Rock.
They show up so often – Matthieu Pavon at Shinnecock Hills last year; Paz Echeverria of Chile at the Women’s Open at Sebonack on Long Island – that they are easy to dismiss: “Oh, yeah, another amateur. They’ll fall apart.” Because, historically, they have. Catherine Lacoste (of the Izod Lacostes) is the only amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open. That was back in 1967 when 6-over par got the job done. The only recent amateur to make a run late was Hye-jin Choi, a 17-year-old South Korean who finished second in 2017 at Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey and has not graced a major championship or LPGA leaderboard since.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get to know them. For many of these players, this is the highlight of their sporting lives, their one shining moment.
Take, for example, Gina Kim, the 19-year-old freshman amateur from Duke, a young woman who still wears braces, chews gum and carries her own golf bag most of the time. Last week, Kim hit the shot and holed the putt that advanced Duke to the NCAA Championship final, which ultimately led to the school’s seventh national championship in women’s golf.
Amateurs, as a rule, don’t follow up good rounds with good rounds. But follow up is exactly what Kim did.
On Thursday, at dark, in front of about six people, Kim holed a 141-yard 8-iron – “it was a chippie eight,” she said – for eagle on the eighth (her 17th) hole at Country Club of Charleston to climb within two shots of the lead. Just a few minutes later, with the sun setting over the Wappoo Cut of the intercoastal waterway, Kim hit a 3-wood from 241 yards on the par-5 ninth and darn near made an albatross. The ball rolled just over the left edge of the hole and came to rest 12 feet long. For all the world, it looked like she would make eagle and claim a share of the lead at the edge of night. But the ball hung on the high side, less than an inch from the best first-round finish in major championship memory.
“This is something I dreamed of as a little girl,” Kim said on Thursday night. “So being able to finish out strong like that really shows me that I’m ready to be here and I’m definitely ready to do whatever I can to keep myself in it.
“So I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do, but I’m also proud of my caddie as well, who has really worked hard with me out there on the course.”
She found her caddie, Ben Sorrells, during the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. He has looped at the National for 10 years and works on the Web.com Tour for Sam Love, a bearded, balding 27-year-old whose best finish this season has been a tie for 32nd. Love was with Sorrells when Kim texted and asked for a caddie-player reunion in Charleston. “They’re playing Raleigh this week,” Sorrells said. “And I said to him, ‘It’s the U.S. Open, man.’ He said, “Go. You’ve gotta do it.’ So, the first text I got (on Thursday) was from him. He said, ‘You ought to stick with her. I shot 4 over today and you made the USGA Instagram story.’
“But she’s such a nice kid,” Sorrells said. “We had a feeling we needed to birdie the last three holes to make the cut at Augusta. She hit a great putt at 16 that horseshoed out.
“As we’re walking to 17 tee, she said, ‘I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.’ Her (positive) attitude just blew me away.
“Then she asked if I would caddie for her next year. I’d made my mind up that I was only going to do (the ANWA) the first year. But with her attitude I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Then when she called me to do this, I couldn’t wait.”
The positivity isn’t just from her age and wide-eyed innocence. Both of Kim’s parents are college professors, teaching Spanish at the University of North Carolina. Her dad didn’t see her opening-round 66 or the three three-putt 72 on Friday that put her in fourth place and guaranteed a late tee time on Saturday. Kim is two strokes behind leader Mamiko Higa, with Jessica Korda and Celine Boutier tied for second. But Kim’s dad, along with her trainer and a good crop of friends, will be in Charleston to cheer Gina through the third round.
It could have gone the other way. If history is any guide, it should have gone the other way. Amateurs, as a rule, don’t follow up good rounds with good rounds, especially after answering scores of text, Instagram and Snapchat messages – “I even had people e-mail me,” Kim said, as if this was akin to a telegram coming via Morse code. It doesn’t happen after getting up several times during the night, not because of the Asian fusion dinner in downtown Charleston, but because of the thought – “Wow, what just happened? What is going to happen? What could happen?” It doesn’t happen after bogeying the first hole on Friday (Kim three-putted from 90 feet on the toughest hole on the course). But follow up is exactly what Kim did. She made two birdies and three bogeys and hit the ball well all day – solid by any measure.
“I chew gum because I get nervous,” she said. “I used to pick the calluses on my thumb but I saw Tiger chewing gum at the Masters and said, ‘Mom, we’re chewing gum.’ ”
Sorrell also helped. “Her adrenaline got to pumping and I just kept preaching, ‘Keep that tempo. Keep your tempo,’” Sorrell said in the soft rhythm of a master hypnotist. “You know, you get in contention, you see your name on the boards and you get a little quick. So, we’re focusing on keeping her tempo solid. Her attitude is so good you don’t have to do a whole lot with her.”
She also kept some advice in mind that one of her fellow Blue Devils gave her. R.J. Barrett, one of the stars of the Duke basketball team, told her, “Gina, you’ve hit the same shot a million times in practice. You should have confidence that you can hit it one time on the course. Trust the work.”
So far, Kim has done just that. During a practice round on Tuesday with So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park, Kim outdrove both former world No. 1s by a healthy margin. Her ball-striking is certainly good enough to contend deep into the weekend. “The main takeaway (from Friday) was, I didn’t make more mistakes than yesterday,” she said.
It might end on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. But maybe not. History is out there for the taking.
Also on Tuesday, Kim was asked if she would be helping design Duke’s NCAA Championship rings. “I don’t think they’ll let me do that,” she said. “I’m just a freshman.”
Friday afternoon she was asked about it again. “Maybe,” she said. “They might let me have a little more say now.”
Gina Kim en route to her second round 72 in the U.S. Women’s Open on Friday at the Country Club of Charleston. Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA Today Sports
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