GLEN COVE, N.Y. – It’s been a big summer for Kristen Gillman. She has won, set records and contended.
Better yet, she has showed up at big events, played well and transitioned from being just another ponytailed teen with high hopes and braces to a solid player who has earned respect as a quietly efficient champion.
Gillman, 16, of Austin, Texas, continued that streak on Friday at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Nassau Country Club when she rallied from 4 down with six holes remaining to win her quarterfinal match in 20 holes over Su-Hyun Oh, of Australia.
“I guess all the hard work I’ve been putting in throughout the school year has been paying off,” said Gillman, whose semifinal appearance in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur has earned her exemptions into next year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior. A win on Saturday would get Gillman into next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club.
“The more I play in tournaments, the more I learn, and I just keep taking that into the next tournament,” added Gillman.
Gillman’s charge started on the second nine when she rolled in a birdie from 3 feet on No. 13, in what she called “a game-changer.” Then she won the 15th hole with a two-putt par from 20 feet.
With two holes to play, Gillman slammed home another birdie when she striped a 9-iron to 5 feet on No. 17 to trim Oh’s lead to 1 up.
On the 18th hole, both players found the right rough off the tee and both of their approach shots bounced into rough left of the green. Gillman saved par by holing a 4-foot putt, while Oh’s putt for par ran past the hole, squaring the match.
“I told myself I was going to keep fighting and I wasn’t going to leave here with any regrets,” said Gillman, a junior at Lake Travis High School in Austin, who gets golf instruction at the Jim McLean Academy in Forth Worth. “I kept visualizing my shots going close and seeing the putts going in.”
Once in extra holes, the match moved to the par-3 10th hole. Gillman had a birdie chance from 5 feet, but “second-guessed” her stroke and missed.
On No. 11, the Gillman struck her 4-hybrid from 170 yards to 15 feet. This time, she made the birdie putt to close out the match.
“I learned it’s never over until it’s over and you can always come back,” she said.
Ironically, the player who was there when Gillman turned up her Texas turbines last week at the Junior PGA Championship has served as her caddie since the round of 32 on Thursday. Bethany Wu, of Diamond Bar, Calif., who was the Women’s Amateur stroke-play medalist, opted to assist Gillman after she lost in Wednesday’s first round.
Quite frankly, Wu knew what Gillman could do.
Wu had experienced her own Texas-sized defeat first-hand when Gillman carded rounds of 66-66-70-66 to win the Junior PGA Championship by 11 shots over runner-up Wu with a record-setting score of 16-under 268. That 72-hole total eclipsed the previous tournament record of 271, set in 1999 by Aree Song Wonglukiet, the same year she won the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
“I played the first two rounds with her at the Junior PGA and she hit the ball so straight and made every putt,” said Wu. “This week, she’s still hitting it straight and making putts. Kristen is all about consistency.”
Last week, Gillman became the first player to go wire-to-wire at the PGA Junior since Lexi Thompson in 2009.
While Gillman owned previous victories, her PGA Junior title brought new accolades and benefits. As champion, she earned an exemption into the 2016 Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic next April at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., as well as a spot on the 2014 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team, which will travel to Scotland in late September. She’ll celebrate her 17th birthday on her first trip to Scotland.
She advanced into the round of 16 at last month’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, losing 3 and 1 to eventual winner Princess Mary Superal, of the Philippines. En route to that match, Gillman ousted 14-year-old Eunjeong Seong, of Korea, 4 and 3, a week after Seong had been a finalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
Gillman is now mentally focused on winning her Saturday semifinal match against world Andrea Lee, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., who is No. 10 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™.
“I’m pretty excited to be playing tomorrow and I’m happy with the way I’ve been playing,” said Gillman, currently No. 57 in the WAGR.
Gillman admits she’s “a little surprised” to have advanced into the semifinals.
“I still had pretty high expectations here because of how I played last week,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could make it into the semifinals of this championship, but I definitely had expectations of making the [match-play] cut.”
Wu has four close friends in Saturday’s semifinals, but says Gillman has as good a chance to win as anyone.
“She’s very capable,” said Wu, who is flying home to California on Saturday, thus handing over caddie duties to Gillman’s father. “It’s going to be a good match because Andrea Lee has almost the same very consistent game as Kristen. I’ll be watching the scoring on my phone.”
Regardless of what happens in Saturday’s semifinals, Gillman’s big summer just got bigger.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.