Kohler, Wis. – Stephanie Meadow’s summer just keeps getting better and better.
Who knew that what started in Franklin, Tenn., in late May with an NCAA Division I team championship for the University of Alabama would become a run of three victories and one second in a span of six weeks?
Meadow, a 20-year-old from Portrush, Northern Ireland, secured the winning point for Great Britain and Ireland with her 4-and-2 singles victory over Amy Anderson on June 10 at the Curtis Cup Match in Scotland, ending a seven-match losing streak to the USA and completing an amazing final-day comeback in which the home side claimed five of eight matches.
Nine days later, she reached the finals of the Irish Women’s Close Amateur at County Louth Golf Club against Curtis Cup teammate Leona Maguire, which Meadow lost, 2-down.
Last Saturday, 11 days after the loss to Maguire, Meadow claimed the Ladies’ British Open Amateur title.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Meadow as she warmed up on the Blackwolf Run driving range Tuesday morning.
Meadow, who will be a junior at Alabama in the fall, wasn’t in the U.S. Women’s Open field until Saturday when she finished off her marvelous six-match run at Carnoustie in Scotland.
A new Women’s Open exemption category this year gave Meadow a spot in the field this week, something she didn’t realize until Ladies Golf Union officials informed her after the 4-and-3 victory over Rocio Sanchez Lobato of Spain.
“I really thought it was for next year,” said Meadow of the exemption.
Fortunately, the unexpected addition to her competitive schedule didn’t put a crimp in her family’s pocketbook. Meadow already was scheduled to fly to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to start a summer-school finance class that begins Thursday. A small change fee enabled her to get to Wisconsin Monday night without much trouble.
Meadow also is accustomed to making transatlantic flights, having flown home to Northern Ireland three times in the past year.
But to rest her body from the six-hour time difference and prepare for her first Women’s Open appearance, Meadow only hit balls on Tuesday. She’ll get her only practice round on the course Wednesday before Thursday’s first round. The late arrival also cost Meadow a chance to book a practice round with Alabama teammate Brooke Pancake, who is making her professional debut this week after playing for the USA Curtis Cup Team.
“We’ll probably have dinner this week,” said Meadow. “It was fun to share that [Curtis Cup] experience with her. It was a little weird at the start not being on the same team and not being able to support each other.”
This week, Meadow just wants to clear her head from the current whirlwind. She said the Curtis Cup triumph has finally sunk in, but her win last Saturday at Carnoustie remains too fresh.
She will have a one-month respite from competition after this week’s Women’s Open. She won’t play again until the U.S. Women’s Amateur Aug. 6-12 at The Country Club in Cleveland. By winning the Ladies’ British Amateur, she also earned a spot in the Women’s British Open in September at Royal Liverpool.
A New Level
Sporting her bag from the recent Curtis Cup Match, Brooke Pancake hardly looked like a newly minted professional at Blackwolf Run.
“I figured that it was only festive considering it’s Fourth of July week,” said the recent University of Alabama graduate, who left the amateur ranks after posting a 3-1-1 record in a losing effort for the USA last month at The Nairn Golf Club in Scotland.
Since the Match ended on June 10, Pancake, the only member of the 2012 USA Team to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, has signed with a sports management company and begun lining up her summer schedule before LPGA Tour Qualifying School starts in the fall.
First up was this week’s trip to Wisconsin for her first Women’s Open.
While the 22-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn., has told herself it is just another competition, Pancake has felt a few differences in preparing for the national championship. For one thing, she’s no longer playing for pride.
“You have to manage all of your energy,” said Pancake after walking off the par-4 18th green Tuesday afternoon in the searing heat. “You’re seeing the course three or four times. You have to get adjusted to the course, especially for a U.S. [Women’s] Open. They are going to play the golf course different every single day. You study the course a little bit more, kind of like we did at Curtis Cup and at [NCAAs].”
Helping her through her inaugural pro event this week is swing coach Todd McKittrick, along with good friend and mini-tour player Travis Slaathaug, another McKittrick student who is serving as Pancake’s caddie. Both know her game well and Pancake expects Slaathaug to keep her calm.
“I’m sure I will have the first-tee jitters that I am not quite used to,” admitted Pancake. “But I’m just excited. It’s a new level and everyone is great at this level. It’s just great to see how I compare and what I need to learn.”
If Pancake needs to draw on past experiences, she won’t have to look far. Her 3-foot par putt on the 72nd hole clinched the first NCAA Division I women’s golf title for the University of Alabama, and she finished as the individual runner-up. Not long afterward, Pancake received the 2012 Honda Award – given annually to the best collegiate golfer. She also was named the Southeastern Conference’s Female Athlete of the Year, a high honor considering that Alabama also won an NCAA softball title in 2012, the first-ever by an SEC school.
Just prior to the Curtis Cup, Pancake qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open and took that momentum to the Curtis Cup, where she had the best record among the eight USA players.
At least as impressive as the golf exploits is the fact that she graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average.
“School was very important to me,” said Pancake. “It still is. I read all the time. But it’s exciting not to have to shorten practice or not have to study for a final exam.”
It’s also fun to have Meadow and incoming Alabama freshman Emma Talley, of Princeton, Ky., representing the Crimson Tide this week.
“I called [Alabama coach] Mic [Potter] right away [after Meadow’s Ladies’ British win],” said Pancake. “I told him you have a future, past and present Alabama player here. You should be coach of the century.”
Pancake said her schedule will get hectic following the Women’s Open. She will be on the road five consecutive weeks playing Symetra and LPGA events. She has landed sponsor’s exemptions into next month’s Jamie Farr Toledo (Ohio) Classic and the Navistar LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala. (Sept. 20-23).
Indeed, the future looks bright for Pancake.
“This has been the best year of my life so far,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
Deeper And Younger
Cristie Kerr, the 2007 champion, can remember being one of the few players to bypass college and turn professional. That was 16 years ago.
Today, it has become quite common for elite female junior players to jump right into the pro ranks, sometimes before getting a high school diploma. It has given the LPGA Tour an influx of talented golfers who are ready to win immediately.
Lexi Thompson and Paula Creamer each won on the LPGA Tour before donning a cap and gown.
“That was really an unusual thing,” said Kerr of turning pro back in 1996. “But now it seems to be the norm. I played a lot of golf in south Florida with Lexi. Lexi is 17 now. I asked her ‘How many [Women’s] Opens is this for you?’ She said five. She’s been playing since she was 12 and she’s a seasoned veteran at 17.
“When I came out and I was 16, 17, 18, it was really a scary thing. They are just grooming these kids so early now that it’s a business.”
This week’s U.S. Women’s Open features a 13-year-old (Angel Yin) and a couple of 14-year-olds (Hannah O’Sullivan and Megan Khang). Shanshan Feng recently claimed the LPGA Championship at 22. Morgan Pressel won the Kraft Nabisco Championship at 19, and nearly won the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open at 17.
“When I was 17, I was lucky to have my parents traveling with me,” said Kerr, who first competed in the U.S. Women’s Open as a 17-year-old amateur in 1995 at The Broadmoor. “[At 17 today], you have a coach, you have a mental coach, you have a trainer. It’s a different world we live in now. Golf is just becoming such an international sport, especially with the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Those are all factors.
“I think TV, I think the Olympics … it’s just a very, very global sport now.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.