FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Six years later the memories are a bit fuzzy for Samantha Wagner, but then again she was only 11 years old when she qualified to play in the 2008 U.S Girls’ Junior Championship, the second youngest ever to do so.
“It was kind of surreal for me,” she said. “I don’t remember much about the golf except for having to hit a driver on one par 3. I also got to see Lexi Thompson (who won the championship) up close. But I really just remember going there and having so much fun embracing it all.”
This week at Forest Highlands Golf Club, the 17-year-old, who has committed to the University of Florida, is playing in her fourth and final Girls’ Junior. In Wednesday’s first round of match play, she dispatched Brynn Walker, 7 and 5.
“I came home from the Player’s Dinner Sunday night and just got so sad thinking this is the last year. I’m getting old,” she laughed.
Was Wagner, who shot in the 80s and missed the cut at The Hartford Club in Connecticut, truly ready to play in a national championship in 2008? Looking back now her mother Amy isn’t so sure.
“It was fun and a novelty for her to be there,” she said. “But as her game grew and she’s done other things, we wondered if maybe it didn’t give her too much too soon. It set very high expectations for her even though she loved it.”
“I remember when she came out of the locker room at Hartford crying after she missed the cut. All of a sudden it hit her and it was a moment of, ‘Oh my God, I just played in a national championship at 11 years old.’ ”
In fact, Wagner would not qualify for the Girls’ Junior the following two years. She did, however, as a 14-year-old, but accepted an invitation from the LPGA Tour to play on the Evian Masters Junior Cup team event in France the same week..
“She said, 'well you can’t go to France every day',” recalled Amy of her daughter’s choice. “It was a valuable experience because it brought the Girls’ Junior back into play when it was naturally time, which I think is 14 or 15 years old, not so much 11 years old. So when she was at Lake Merced [Golf Club in Daly City, Calif.] in 2012, it was almost like she hadn’t been to one before. It was a whole new experience. Her memory had dimmed from four years before.”
“Missing it a few times gave her game time to grow,” says her 19-year old brother C.J,, who has caddied for his younger sister in all four Girls’ Juniors. “She deserved to be there. Her game was ready and she could handle the length and difficulty of that course. It’s been an evolution in her maturity. Her short game has gotten so much better. That’s where she has really grown.”
Her competitive goals had changed by then as well. “In 2012 I was there to make the cut and contend,” said Wagner.” I played really well the first day but struggled the second day and just made the cut. I wound up playing a good friend (Casie Cathrea) in the first round of match play and she creamed me, 5 and 3.”
The Girls’ Junior moved to Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind., last year, a course Wagner knew well from two Junior PGA Championships.
“I love that course,” she said. “It fits my game so it was very easy to go there and feel comfortable.”
She advanced to the round of 16, where she lost to Bethany Wu, 1 down.
That championship also marked a new chapter for her parents, who had moved their family from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania to central Florida when Samantha was 11.
“That Girls’ Junior was where I felt she was most aligned with her game,” said Amy. “She was in a very good place. She had grown up. She was really in charge of her own game.”
Wagner’s most memorable moments in the event are recent ones. “Shooting 3 under during the first round of stroke play last year,” she said. “And in [Wednesday’s] first-round match I wasn’t swinging well but I was in a really good place with my brother out there. After I lost a hole on 10 he said, ‘Just close this out.’ ”
Which she did three holes later.
Six years after her daughter earned a spot in USGA history, what would Amy Wagner now tell another parent who has a talented 11-year old golfer?
“If they are in the same place and time that we were, then do it but without any expectations,” she said. “Enjoy each moment for the moment that it represents. Don’t get caught up in the what ifs. Sam didn’t qualify for the Girls’ Junior at age 12 or 13, and she chose not to play it at age 14. Take the successes as they come. Nothing is defining at that age whether it’s a loss or a win. This is a marathon, not a sprint, as her swing coach Kevin Smeltz once told us.”
Although the Wagner family closes their U.S. Girls’ Junior chapter this week, they will leave with fond memories.
“We really think a lot of this event,” said Amy. “It’s kind of the place you want to be. I use it as marker for how Sam’s game has grown. She really has matured in the past year or so. I don’t see a little girl anymore. She’s ready to go to college and beyond. She’s ready for the next step.”
While the souvenirs she has collected along the way are nice – cool cool divot tool from the Hartford Golf Club (2008), a putter head cover from Lake Merced, a handful of items from Sycamore Hills and a golf shirt with the championship logo this year – there’s one more Samantha would love to bring home: a USGA trophy.
“Winning a USGA title would be the highest possible level you could reach,” she said. “There are lot of big tournaments but right now this is the biggest for me.”
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.