GLEN COVE, N.Y. – Six years ago, Chelsea (C.C.) Buford would have never envisioned herself competing in this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
In fact, she never had any intention of playing golf even though her mother, Beth Boozer Buford, competed on the LPGA and Ladies European Tours.
Growing up in a family engrained in basketball – her father, R.C., is the general manager of the five-time NBA-champion San Antonio Spurs; her biological older brother, Chase, was a walk-on at Kansas where R.C. was the assistant coach for the 1988 NCAA-champion Jayhawks; and she has two adopted brothers, Alexis Wangmene (Cameroon/Texas) and Samer Jassar (Israel/Baker University) who both played collegiately – Buford seemed destined for a jump shot over a chip shot.
Volleyball and basketball were Chelsea’s two sports of choice.
“Basketball was the first sport that I picked up, just because of the family,” said Buford prior to her final practice round before the 114th U.S. Women’s Amateur at Nassau Country Club. “I’ve got an older brother and I wanted to be like him. I picked up [a basketball] before I could walk.”
Everything changed in the spring of 2008. Saint Mary’s Hall, the prep school Chelsea attended in San Antonio, needed one more player to fill the roster for its fledgling girls’ golf team. Her best friend, Parker Shea, who later played at Division III Denison University in Ohio, suggested Chelsea try out. Despite no formal training, she agreed to play. After all, it filled a two-month void during the spring, since volleyball was in the fall and basketball in the winter.
“I didn’t break 100 my first year,” said Chelsea, who opened with an 8-over 78 on Monday. “It was so demoralizing … [but] I really loved it. It was something new and exciting. I played volleyball and basketball and I had kind of hit a plateau. I felt in golf every day I was out there I was learning a new shot and getting better.”
This week is another learning experience for Chelsea, who only began playing in national events this summer. She reached the consolation final of the Southern Amateur in Oklahoma and tied for 34th in last week’s Women’s Trans-National in South Carolina.
Unlike most of this week’s field, Chelsea didn’t have a decorated junior career. Her summers were filled with volleyball camps, not golf clinics.
Then again, she did have a bird’s-eye view of what her father was doing with the Spurs, one of the models of excellence in professional basketball. While she didn’t mingle with the players, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, two of the team’s veteran superstars, provided words of wisdom.
“Keep doing what you love to do and success will follow,” Parker would often say to Buford.
It was, however, a Spurs connection that led Chelsea, 22, to the College of Charleston in South Carolina as a recruited walk-on. George Felton, the team’s East Coast scout, had played with Charleston’s head men’s basketball coach, Bobby Cremins, at the University of South Carolina. Felton told Buford to give the school a look. At first, she thought about playing volleyball, but was informed the team wasn’t seeking new recruits.
The women’s golf coach, Jamie Futrell, however, was willing to take a flier. Buford promised to work hard and after a redshirt season in 2010-11, Buford eventually earned a spot in the team’s lineup. By the spring of 2011, she broke 80 for the first time.
And on July 10, 2014, at Pinehurst Country Club in Denver, Colo., Buford shot a 73 and edged Tori Glenn in a playoff for the final qualifying spot in the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“This is as big a thrill as I’ve had in my life,” said R.C. Buford, who also watched his son celebrate an NCAA title at KU in 2008. “My wife was a [golf] professional and I caddied for her in the [Women’s]British Open and that was quite a thrill. This is a terrific thrill. This is my daughter. This is really exciting.”
For a non-scholarship player from a smaller Division I school with no top-10 finishes to date, it is, arguably, the biggest accomplishment in Chelsea’s career. At Nassau Country Club, she is surrounded by USA and Great Britain & Ireland Curtis Cup players, USGA champions, blue-chip juniors and college all-Americans. For the stroke-play qualifying rounds, she was paired with UCLA All-American Alison Lee, a member of the victorious 2014 USA Curtis Cup Team.
But no matter the outcome, Buford knows the experience can only bolster her confidence.
“We’re so excited and so proud of her,” said Beth, who played in the 1983 U.S. Women’s Open at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., before meeting R.C. “She’s starting out at the top and I’m not sure she realizes how good this is to be here.”
It’s a far cry from Buford’s first collegiate tournament in 2011 when she was scared to step on the first tee against players from major Division I programs.
“I’d be shaking because these schools are so big,” said Chelsea. “It’s an honor to look around and see the bags from Ohio State, Southern California, North Carolina … and to see people playing for their countries, and to see juniors who have won [major] tournaments. I want to beat some of these schools that said they didn’t want to take a chance on a person who hasn’t played golf very long.”
Two years ago, Chelsea thought her golf career might be over. She injured her back during the spring season, a setback that nearly led Buford to give up the game. As she watched from the sidelines, she realized there was so much left to accomplish. She became closer to her teammates and grew stronger from the adversity.
Chelsea could look within her extended family for inspiration. Watching the Spurs win the NBA title over the Miami Heat in June only a season removed from a bitterly disappointing seven-game loss in the finals to the same Miami team illustrated how resiliency can pay dividends.
“Those guys are all champions, inside and out,” said Chelsea, who works with swing instructor Bryan Gathright at Oak Hills Country Club where her family has a membership.. “But they’ve been able to exemplify mental strength and emotional strength that you need in the golf game. To see them throughout the years stay calm and collected … to see the way they fought back after coming so close last year was kind of an inspiration to me.”
R.C., who played basketball at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M before graduating from Friends University in Wichita, Kan., also is a symbol of someone who worked hard to reach the pinnacle of his sport, albeit in an administrative role. Not long after graduating from Friends University, Buford got the chance to serve as an assistant under the legendary coach Larry Brown at Kansas, where he helped the team win the 1988 NCAA title. It’s also where R.C. met Beth, a former KU golfer and Lawrence, Kan., native. Beth was still playing professionally, so the two enjoyed a brief long-distance relationship before marrying in 1987.
“I got married, qualified for the [Ladies European Tour] and got pregnant [with Chase] all in the same year,” said Beth.
After Kansas won the 1988 title, Brown asked R.C. to join his staff in San Antonio, and when Brown moved on to the Los Angeles Clippers in 1992, R.C. moved with him. R.C., who also spent one year as Lon Kruger’s assistant on the University of Florida’s 1993-94 Final Four team, returned to the Spurs as a scout in 1994 and has remained with the team since, working his way up the organizational ladder until he was named general manager when current coach Gregg Popovich relinquished that title prior to the 2002-03 season.
But this week, R.C., who once carried a single-digit handicap, is simply a spectator. No contracts to sign or free agents to scout.
Chelsea, who has one year of eligibility remaining, would like to someday play professional golf. Buford, an exercise science major, could also see herself coaching. She’s also passionate about physical therapy and the role proper nutrition plays in sports.
Right now, though, her concern is the Women’s Amateur. Six years ago, this didn’t seem possible. Now, she’s competing in one of the world’s biggest championships – all of it courtesy of a coach willing to give her an opportunity.
“Coach has been a huge blessing,” said Chelsea of Futrell. “He was one of the few coaches willing to take a chance and go out on a limb for somebody who hadn’t broken 80.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.