Savannah, Ga. – Marilina Silen didn’t quite know what to expect from her Puerto Rican golfers as they made their USGA Women’s State Championship debut this week at The Landing Club.
Although the biennial championship has been around since 1995, Puerto Rico had never sent a women’s team, while the men had participated in eight of the nine previous playing of the USGA Men’s State Team Championship, including the inaugural competition.
The prevailing thought among the Puerto Rican Golf Association was there weren’t enough quality players to merit participation. So why spend the dollars for a team to make a trip and finish at the bottom of the field.
That philosophy has changed in the past few years as more and more young girls are being attracted to the game.
So Silen, the team’s non-playing captain and a 14-year board member of the Puerto Rican Golf Association, felt 2011 was the right time to enter this 54-hole stroke-play championship.
“We feel we have good players coming up,” said Silen, who oversees junior development for the PRGA. “It’s time to start coming and exposing these girls to these types of championships.”
And Puerto Rico hasn’t just shown up and smiled for pictures this week at the Palmetto Course. The trio of Rebekah Alfond, Maria Torres and Paola Robles has been quite competitive. Thanks to an even-par 72 from 16-year-old Torres on Tuesday, Puerto Rico stood in a tie for 13th after round one. A high school junior, Torres has already received college scholarship offers from Division I stalwarts Florida, Purdue and Stanford.
Torres struggled to a 78 on Wednesday, but the team still moved up one spot in to a tie for 12 th in the 51-team field.
In fact, the team’s performance over the first 36 holes has even raised expectations.
“Once we got here, we said let’s try to be in the top 20,” said Robles, a high school senior who will play for the University of Central Florida next fall. “Once we started playing golf, we said, ‘Hey, how about top 10?’ Hopefully, we will be better [on Thursday].”
Both Torres and Robles are examples why golf, especially junior golf, is rapidly improving on the U.S. territory in the Caribbean. Torres qualified for this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, advancing to the round of 32 before losing to 2011 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Gabriela Then. Robles has also competed in various American Junior Golf Association events in the U.S.
They are part of a recent surge in Puerto Rican female golf. Two years ago, Janice Olivencia, a former standout at the University of Texas, became the first Puerto Rican to play in the U.S. Women’s Open. Another former junior standout, Kyle Roig, currently is a freshman at UCLA who has represented Puerto Rico at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship, while Laura Diaz competed at East Tennessee State before landing her current position with the The First Tee chapter in Jacksonville, Fla.
Of course, the most famous Puerto Rican golfer was Chi Chi Rodriguez, the swashbuckling charismatic professional who was the runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff at the 1991 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills C.C. in suburban Detroit.
Because of the recent golf success by Puerto Rican females, Silen said the PRGA is starting to get better financing to pay and train elite coaches. With the Olympics adopting golf into its competitive curriculum beginning in 2016, the motivation now is there to develop future talent.
“That’s big,” said Silen. “We have good girls coming up and that’s their goal.”
Added Robles: “Just to put your name up there and represent your country would be amazing. The Olympics is one of my goals.”
Robles began playing the game 12 years ago. She said at that time, only a handful of young girls were playing. As she has gotten older, she’s noticed the increase in participants.
And getting the opportunity to play in her first USGA event this week has been a worthwhile experience.
“I can say it has been excellent,” said Robles, who improved from a first-round 84 to shoot a 7-over 79 on Wednesday. “The way the USGA has set up the tournament, it’s perfect.”
Silen can also see how the experience this week will pay dividends down the road.
“I think we can do much better,” she said. “We just have to get used to these kinds of championships.
“Today Maria didn’t hit as many greens as yesterday. The putts didn’t come. [But] in comparison to the field, I think we are doing pretty well.”
Which should leave plenty of hunger for the next Women’s State Team Championship in two years. You can bet on seeing Puerto Rico in the field.
Said Silen: “Oh yeah, for sure, we’ll be there.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at email@example.com.