DUPONT, Wash. – Ann Soderman is about to face a big void in her summer schedule.
For 37 years, the native Texan reserved a week for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, first as a competitor and then as a member of the WAPL Championship Committee. For those counting, that’s every WAPL but the inaugural competition in 1977.
“It is my championship,” said Soderman. “I have seen it grow and have seen it come full circle.”
But that remarkable run concludes this week at The Home Course in DuPont, Wash. The WAPL – along with the U.S. Amateur Public Links – is being officially retired by the USGA. It is not only a bittersweet ending for the competitors and past champions, but also for longtime volunteers such as Soderman.
The U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship Committee is a tight-knit group of passionate volunteers. Eight current members of the committee are Ike Grainger Award recipients, meaning they have served the USGA for 25 years. That group includes Soderman, Donna Sauve, Kathy Hariford, Randy Glassman, Becky Rountree, Sharon Schultze, Susan Tanto and Sara Wold,
But none can match the tenure of Soderman, who first qualified as a player in 1978 at Myrtlewood Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She played in 10 consecutive WAPLs and 15 overall, never advancing past the second round of match play.
Nevertheless, Soderman’s legacy won’t be for her on-course results.
As someone who learned the game at a rural nine-hole municipal course in Newgulf, Texas, Soderman’s love for the WAPL runs to its very core. Outside of her vocation as a junior high social studies teacher, this championship has been her life.
A few years after Soderman graduated from Houston Baptist University, Madalon Self, one of the original members of the WAPL Committee, approached her about becoming her eventual successor. . Self was actively involved in bringing the WAPL to fruition in 1977 and when it came time to retire from her committee post, she wanted Soderman to carry on her legacy from the Houston area.
Still in her 20s, Soderman wasn’t as established as other committee members. She was a fine player, but felt a bit out of place.
“Here are all these committee people who were well-established women golfers or established women within the [state/regional] golf associations,” she said. “I thought all of these women are old. Now I look back and it’s very interesting.”
Eventually, Soderman gave up competing in WAPLs in order to devote herself to the time-consuming task of running the qualifiers. At that time, the official in charge for each WAPL qualifying site handled registration for the USGA as well as obtaining any financial assistance to help qualifiers travel to the national championship. The Houston Golf Association, which annually provided $350-$500, assisted along with other local charities. Soderman also conducted raffles.
In 2000, the USGA changed the rules regarding how competitors could receive expenses, thus ending the WAPL Committee’s involvement.
“We had a lot of women who played to support the event,” said Soderman. “When I first started on the committee, there were a lot of women who were teachers or working in business and industry that would play the qualifier but would not be able to afford to come [to the championship proper. So we would have raffles and little events to raise some money. [The qualifiers] were very appreciative. It made a difference for someone to attend.”
Labor Of Love
In 1987, Donna Sauve returned to competitive golf after a 14-year hiatus. She started playing with her dad at a nine-hole municipal course in Alamogordo, N.M. In 1965, when she was 10, her father filed an entry for her to compete in the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Hiwan Country Club in Evergreen, Colo.
Sauve was overwhelmed by the experience. She had never played on such a manicured course or against other young girls with similar talent. The USGA officials also left an impression on Suave.
Little did she know that 23 years later she would be joining that group of “ladies in the green suits.”
With her children grown up and out of the house, Sauve started playing Sun Country Amateur Golf Association events. She befriended Marion Senteno from Roswell, N.M., who had past experience competing in USGA championships. So when Wilma Gilliland of the USGA Women’s Committee was searching for an area replacement for the WAPL Championship Committee, it was Senteno who recommended Sauve.
While her Rules knowledge was solid from playing in events, Sauve had never run a competition, much less set up a golf course.
“I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do it,” said Sauve, a New Mexico State graduate who was briefly a physical education teacher before becoming a full-time mom. “Wilma was so gracious and genuine. I read and studied everything I could get my hands on. I started learning and asking questions. I bulldozed my way through.”
With Gilliland’s assistance and help from others, including a local professional who donated a set of golf clubs so she could conduct a raffle to help raise expense money, Sauve slowly figured things out. She raised enough money so each qualifier had enough for airfare and two nights’ lodging.
But when Suave attended her first WAPL in 1989, she developed the same anxieties she had 24 years earlier at the Girls’ Junior. Even her radio etiquette was a bit off.
“I was always, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am,’ until finally someone came over the radio and said, ‘Donna, her name is Wilma, Donna her name is Betty,’” she said. “I came to realize these were hard-working women who used their vacation [time] to work this event.”
In 1990, Sauve experienced the thrill of seeing her New Mexico qualifiers win the team championship, a competition that was retired after the 2008 WAPL. Roswell’s Jo Jo Robertson, then 13 and the youngest player in the field, joined Kerry Zebick, of Albuquerque, and Joy Cross-Garcia, of Las Cruces, in winning the two-day competition at Hyland Hills Golf Course in Westminster, Colo., with a score of 305. It’s the only time the New Mexico qualifying site – teams were comprised of the top qualifiers from each site – won the event, and Sauve says that remains one of her biggest highlights in her 26 years on the committee. Another was seeing Robertson win the WAPL in 1995 and 1997, one of five multi-time winners in the championship’s history.
Since joining the committee, Sauve had lobbied the USGA to stage the championship in New Mexico. In 1999, she got her wish as Santa Ana Golf Club, near Albuquerque, became the only course in the state to host a USGA championship.
“When I went to my first [WAPL], I said to myself, ‘We could do this,’” said Sauve. “So I sent a letter to the USGA asking what we need to do to get the WAPL to New Mexico. I call it nagging, persuading, whatever. I just kept stirring the pot.”
As a tribute to Santa Ana G.C., Sauve went back to the venue for her final WAPL sectional qualifier. She invited Robertson, now the head women’s golf coach at Texas Tech University, to come back as part of the celebration. Many of the same people were still working at the course.
Lifetime of Memories
Soderman was rummaging through old photographs for a special committee slide presentation and she found one of a young Lori Castillo. Castillo was in college at the time and en route to winning three USGA titles – the 1978 U.S. Girls’ Junior and consecutive WAPLs in 1979 and 1980.
“She was just a pup,” said Soderman. “And now she is bringing [qualifiers] from Hawaii on her own.”
Soderman never felt prouder of the WAPL than after Michelle Wie claimed this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 and mentioned her 2003 victory. Soderman had walked with Wie in the 2003 final at Ocean Hammock Golf Club and pounded her chest when Wie talked about the importance of that title during her press conference.
Soderman has also seen many other past WAPL competitors move on to have successful careers, whether it be in golf or another vocation.
“For me, it’s been a career of loving to give these women or young women this USGA experience,” said Soderman. “I know the host clubs have always made the Women’s Amateur Public Links competitors feel like champions. I never felt anything different. It’s always been a wonderful USGA event.”
Soderman and Sauve both said tears and emotion will be flowing at The Home Course this week as the final WAPL chapter is played out. Sauve fondly looks back at experiences like a trip to the Statue of Liberty two years ago and a Hawaiian cruise in 1998. There have been dinners with committee members and side trips with her qualifiers.
But even with the retirement of the WAPL, Soderman hopes it won’t be a total ending. It’s hard to completely drop a lifetime of friendships.
“I’m hoping that some of the other committee women will annually want to get together somewhere,” said Soderman. “We’ll play some golf and reconnect. It would be a shame that some of these relationships would go away. I have been friends with some of these women for 25 years.”
Sounds like that summer void won’t be hard to fill.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.