FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — If you’re looking for a country producing future stars of women’s golf, consider the Philippines. The Southeast Asian nation had three golfers advance to the round of 16 at the U.S. Girls’ Junior on Thursday at Forest Highlands Golf Club.
Although it lags behind basketball, billiards and boxing in terms of popularity, and is still considered largely a sport of middle- to upper-class families who belong to country clubs, golf in the Philippines has grown in stature over the past decade.
“A lot of parents are now seeing our team have success and understand that Filipinas can compete in golf,” said women’s national team coach Anthony Lopez, who won the 1983 Asian Junior Championship and the 1992 Philippine National Amateur. “Instead of having their kids going to sports where we can’t really compete, like basketball, they are now starting to encourage them to play golf.”
Much of the credit for that growth goes to Jennifer Rosales. She won five consecutive Philippine Ladies Amateur titles from 1994-1998), an NCAA Championship in 1998 as a freshman at the University of Southern California, and owns two LPGA Tour victories.
“She really paved the way and showed many girls in our country that college golf is a reality,” said Lopez. “She is a role model and very supportive of the team. When she is at home in the Philippines she makes sure to practice and play with the team. We’re very thankful for the that.”
Two other role models are just behind Rosales. Dorothy Delasin is a Filipino-American who won the 1996 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Westward Ho Country Club in Sioux Falls, S.D. and the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., as well as four times on the LPGA Tour. Dottie Ardina, who has priority status this year on the LPGA Tour, was a finalist at the 2011 U.S. Girls Junior Championship, losing 2 and 1 to Ariya Jutanugam at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club.
To gain more exposure to higher levels of competition, a number of the country’s best female golfers annually come to the U.S., renting a home in Southern California from June through August to use as their base while traveling to multiple competitions, including the Girls’ Junior.
“I told them just getting into this event is a big thing,” said Lopez of his four qualifiers this year. “If you get to the round of 64 I would be so happy, and all of them made it to the round of 32. So we can’t ask for anything more. Except for Princess [Mary Superal]. We have big expectations for her so hopefully she goes farther.”
Superal is the country’s top female amateur golfer and No. 64 in the latest Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™. The daughter of a teaching pro, the 17-year old has played in three U.S. Girls’ Juniors. After missing the cut in 2012 at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., she reached the round of 32 last year Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind. before losing to eventual champion Gabriella Then.
This week at Forest Highlands Golf Club, she has advanced to the quarterfinals, defeating Kristen Gillman, 3 and 1, in the round of 16 on Thursday afternoon. Superal, who has already qualified for next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y., comes from a golfing family; her siblings include an older brother named Wolen Juan and a younger sister named Eagle Ace.
“Princess is so smart, she doesn’t try to overdo things and has good length for her size,” said Lopez, who has coached Superal since she was 12. “But her heart and her short game are very good. She is a scorer.”
Clare Amelia (Mia) Legaspi, a first alternate for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, advanced to the round of 16 before losing to Shelly Shin 6 and 5. She won the Asian Youth Games in China last August, edging Superal by one stroke.
“She is bigger than most of our players and hits the ball very long,” said Lopez of the 15-year old. “She is receiving a lot of college scholarships offers now.”
The other two Filipinas in the Girls’ Junior field are 13-year olds Sofia Chabon, who has advanced to the round of 16 in her first USGA Championship before losing, 2 down, to Binny Lee, and Yuka Saso, who lost in the round of 32 on Thursday to 2014 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Andrea Lee, 6 and 5.
“Those players are young but they have good heads and should make the national team soon,” said Lopez. “What I love about all of the players is they listen, which is a coaches’ dream.”
Being a more consistent presence at international competitions would certainly create more awareness of the game in his country, but Lopez is currently battling a numbers game.
“I was talking to the coach of the Thailand junior team recently and she asked me how many kids we have,” said Lopez. “I told her we have about 20 who could be considered good players. She has 2,000. Hopefully in the near future we can get 100 who would be eligible for the national team.”
Golf in the Philippines dates back to 1907, when the country’s first course – Iloilo Golf and Country Club – opened. Additional courses came on board just after World War II, but a course-building boom between the late 1980s and 1990s, including layouts by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf and Greg Norman, helped create a new generation of golfers. The country now boasts approximately 200 courses.
“During my time playing on national team we had courses with super slow greens,” said Lopez, whose team practices at least three times a week in Manila. “When I would come to the U.S. I would have five three-putts every round. Now we have better conditions with fast greens, so my players are lucky.”
Like junior coaches in many other countries, dealing with parents is an issue for Lopez.
“If I invite a player to join the team, my assistant coach Nestor Mendoza will sit with the parents and ask them if they are willing to let go,” he said. “They usually say yes. When I was growing up and playing, my parents were hands off. That’s the way it should be.”
Lopez wants Filipina golfers to experience college golf in the U.S., but if they are good enough after their sophomore year he thinks they should consider playing professionally.
But this week he has another goal in mind: winning a USGA championship.
“This (Girls’ Junior) is the biggest event for us right now,” he said. “I can’t even think about what it would be like to have one of our girls win it.”
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.