FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Gabriella Then defeated Lakareber Abe, 2 and 1, to win the 2013 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.
Then, 17, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., built a commanding 5-up lead through 22 holes of the 36-hole final on the 6,312-yard, Jack Nicklaus design. Abe, 17, of Angleton, Texas, chipped away at the lead and pulled to all square with four holes to play. But Then refused to back down, clinching the victory with a birdie at the 35th hole.
“I finally did it, a USGA championship,” said Then, who was competing in her 11th USGA championship. “To be able to have my game where it is right now and be able to make it this far is great.”
Then, who starts her college career at the University of Southern California in less than a month, never trailed in her six matches, and was only all square for 17 of her 117 holes.
By reaching the final, Abe and Then earned exemptions into the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, which will be conducted Aug. 5-11 at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina.
The 2013 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship is open to female amateur golfers under the age of 18. It is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
After halving the opening hole with pars, Then took the first lead of the match when Abe three-putted for bogey at the par-5 second. Then extended her lead to 2 up with a birdie at the par-3 third, following Abe’s lip-out from 24 feet.
Abe cut the lead to 1 up when Then was unable to get up and down from a greenside bunker at the par-3 fourth and tapped in for bogey. But when Then applied pressure with a solid approach to 10 feet at the par-5 fifth, Abe stumbled with a three-putt bogey and dropped back to 2 down.
Poor tee shots at the eighth and ninth holes by Then led to a bogey and a double bogey, respectively, with Abe making pars to bring the match back to all square heading to the morning’s inward nine.
“I just kept telling myself to keep fighting,” said Abe, who will attend the University of Alabama in the fall of 2014. “Gabby could hit a good shot at any time, so I just told myself to keep on playing, try to keep making birdies and see what happens.”
Then and Abe swapped pars until the par-4 13th. After reaching the green in two, Abe sent her 30-footer 6 feet past the hole and three-putted for bogey. Then’s chip from the right rough trickled down to within a foot for a par save and a 1-up lead.
Then won Nos. 14 and 15 with birdies to reclaim her 3-up lead. The two halved No. 16 with birdies, and Then extended her advantage to 4 up by nailing yet another a 7-foot birdie at the par-4 17th.
Abe was faced with a prime opportunity to cut into her deficit on the final hole of the morning round when Then’s tee shot at the par-4 18th hit a tree and ricocheted into a stream. She was forced to take a drop and left her third shot 10 feet short of the green, settling for bogey. But Abe was unable to capitalize, sending her approach into the greenside bunker and failing to convert her up-and-down for par.
Coming out of the lunch break, it looked like Then would pick up right where she left off. Abe’s approach to the 19th found the front bunker, and just like at 18, she failed to convert her up-and-down. After finding the green in regulation, Then two-putted for par and regained her 5-up lead.
“I was just focusing on my drives, because that's where I was a little bit wary this morning and this afternoon,” said Then of her afternoon game plan.
But at the 23rd hole, the tenor of the match changed. Abe’s approach shot stopped 2½ feet away, and she won the hole with birdie. At the 24th, Then’s 7-foot birdie try skimmed the hole, and Abe converted her 5-footer to knock another hole off her deficit.
Throughout Abe’s run, Then knew that it wasn’t necessarily her game that was turning things around. Abe had to work for her own success.
“She was making birdies, so I wasn't completely giving it to her by making bogeys,” said Then. “…I never gave up on the hole where I was in trouble.”
Then flew the green at No. 25, and when her second shot failed to clear the rough, Abe took yet another win. The Abe roll continued at the 26th, when Then, trying to make up for her morning drive that found water, sent her tee shot way right and nearly onto the first fairway. Abe’s two-putt par reduced Then’s lead to a tenuous 1-up going to the final nine.
“It just sort of fired me up a little bit,” said Abe. “I just told myself to keep on playing, try to keep making birdies and see what happens.”
Then won a battle of 5-foot par putts at No. 28 to extend to 2 up, but Abe converted a 21-foot birdie at the ensuing hole to pull back to 1 down. Then found the bunker at the 30th hole and failed to make her up-and-down, bringing the match back to all square for the first time since the 12th hole.
Abe knew that even though the match was even, the momentum had not completely swung in her favor. “I have had players just come back on me, and you just handle it,” she said.
Then also knew what she needed to do. “I'm thinking, OK, here we go,” she said. “Last three holes. (I’ve) got to make something happen here. Things just turned my way and I played consistent golf.”
After halving the 33rd with bogeys, Then recaptured the lead with a clutch 10-foot putt for par. Both players found the left side of the fairway on the 35th hole, but while Then’s approach dropped beautifully 10 feet above the hole, Abe’s approach flew the green and nestled in the thick rough under a tree.
Abe made a masterful chip out of the rough, leaving herself with 6 feet for par. But Then calmly stepped to her ball and smoothly stroked in the winning birdie putt.
Both players had strong family support in the gallery. Then’s parents, Andre and Maya, supported her, along with her younger sister, Angella, who lost in the first round of play. Andre Then dropped to his knees in tears when his daughter smoothly stroked her approach to the final hole.
Daudi and Fiora Abe, Lakareber’s parents, were also in attendance, as was her older sister, Tezira, who flew in from Texas Saturday morning to surprise her sister.
“I actually did not know she was coming,” said Abe of her sister’s presence. “I had not seen her in three or four weeks. So I was excited to see her.”
Then also receives an exemption into the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Both players will also be exempt into the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, if otherwise eligible.
Christina Lance is the assistant manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at email@example.com.
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Result of Saturday’s championship match at the 2013 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, conducted at the 6,312-yard, par-72 Sycamore Hills Golf Club:
Gabriella Then, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (152) def. Lakareber Abe, Angleton, Texas (146), 2 and 1