GLEN COVE, N.Y. -- As soon as Kristen Gillman drained her birdie putt on the 18th green to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, 2 up, over Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, her father, Mark Gillman, exchanged fatherly pleasantries and made a beeline to the parking lot.
“Where’s your dad?” asked a member of the media, looking for the father to comment on his daughter’s national championship win at Nassau Country Club in her first attempt.
“I don’t know, but he’s crying,” said Gillman’s sister Emily, who carried the champion’s bag for the final 18 holes, taking over caddie duties from her dad who worked the morning round of the 36-hole championship match. “He went to put the bag in the car so we won’t forget it.”
Even as a 16-year-old newcomer to this championship, Gillman brought her Texas tenacity to New York and showed the rest of a power-packed field what it means to never give up.
She beat Celine Boutier, ranked No. 4 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™, in 20 holes in the round of 32; rallied to beat No. 8 Su-Hyun Oh in 20 holes in the quarterfinals – erasing a four-hole deficit with six to play; and bumped out No. 10 Andrea Lee, 2 and 1, in the semifinals – en route the championship.
Henderson, No. 2 in the WAGR, led for most of the morning and had the momentum at the lunch break, leading 2 up. But once again, Gillman rallied back when Henderson, of Canada, built a 3-up lead. Slowly, but surely, Gillman fought back.
Gillman hit her approach shots tight, made her putts and never looked like she was worried about trying to wrestle the Robert Cox Trophy out of the hands of Henderson, who was trying to become the first Canadian to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 36 years.
“She’s all fight and you can’t tell what she’s thinking until it’s over,” said swing coach Justin Poynter of the Jim McLean Junior Academy in Fort Worth, Texas, who has worked with Gillman since she was in the eighth grade. Poynter and Emily Gillman flew in on different flights Saturday night to attend the championship match.
“She has perseverance and it’s a great trait to want to fight the whole way until it’s done,” added Poynter.
A high school junior at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, Gillman came into the week riding a crest of confidence after a summer of sizzling golf performances on the American Junior Golf Association and other major junior events.
She reached the round of 16 at the 2014 U.S. Girls’ Junior, where she fell to eventual champion Princess Mary Superal. She won last week’s PGA Junior Championship in Bryan, Texas, by a tournament-record 11 strokes, recording three rounds of 66.
Gillman, who never seemed rattled, stressed out her father so much he stayed in his hotel room during the quarterfinals on Friday when good friend and stroke-play medalist Bethany Wu caddieds, superstitiously accompanied his daughter to the same pizza restaurant for the same exact pie for six consecutive nights, and even took his daughter’s dirty clothes to the local coin laundry on Saturday night to make sure she could wear the same winning outfit for the championship match that she wore in Saturday’s semifinals.
“I didn’t know she was 4 down in the quarterfinals,” admitted her father, an account manager for a software company. “I stayed in the hotel room because I was too nervous. I’ve been doing that – and not looking at the results – for the last two years. It’s less stressful that way.”
But the elder Gillman, a former single-digit handicap golfer who taught daughters Emily and Kristen how to play golf, was one proud dad when Kristen striped her final shot of this championship to within 2 feet on the 36th hole and drained her winning birdie putt.
It was about that time that his chin began quivering and he headed toward the parking lot. It was also about that same time that Kristen’s cell phone began “blowing up” with texts and emails from her high school teammates.
“It feels awesome,” said Gillman a 2016 verbal commit to the University of Alabama. “I just kept fighting to the end. I didn’t want to leave here without the ultimate prize.”
That fight did not surprise her father, who admits that his daughter can be “really stubborn” and added that her even-keel demeanor does not come from her parents.
“This week has been amazing – way more than we ever expected,” added Mark.
“But Kristen just hates to lose. She’s always been a fighter. Things that bother most people don’t bother her.”
According to her coach, the turning point in her game may have come two years ago with a simple text.
“She sent me a text in January 2013 that she wanted to be the No. 1 player in the country – the No. 1 junior – so I sent it to her last week after she won the Junior PGA Championship and told her to just keep doing what she was doing,” said Poynter. “She’s on the right track.”
Gillman’s track will keep her pretty busy through September.
With her victory at the PGA Junior Championship, she earned an exemption into the 2015 Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic 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 trip to Scotland.
Her win this week at the U.S. Women’s Amateur earned her an exemption into the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open, as well as 10 more years in the Women’s Amateur. She also will be asked to play for the USA in next month’s Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Japan. The 72-hole competition is scheduled Sept. 3-6.
“She’s making a lot of putts, she’s getting up and down and she’s always been a great ball-striker,” said Poynter. “It’s fun to watch her have some success on a bigger stage.”
But this week, that bigger stage included her family with her dad and sister getting up-close views of what the future might bring in their family.
“I’m very proud of my sister because golf is a family thing for us,” said Emily, who will play for the University of Nebraska women’s golf team this fall as a freshman. “It’s always really fun to see each other succeed.”
And what will the championship bring to Kristen, who will return to high school golf this fall?
“I think she always believed that she was this good, but to go out there and prove it, I’m sure she’ll gain a ton of confidence,” said Mark.
Meanwhile, Henderson had the eyes of Canada on her throughout the week. Past U.S. Women’s Amateur champions Cathy Sherk and Marlene Stewart Streit were hopeful Henderson would become only the third Canadian to win the championship.
Sherk won the 1978 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at 28 and is the last mid-amateur (25 and over) to claim the Robert Cox Trophy. She was 17 years old when she first started playing golf – one year older than Henderson’s current age.
“Every time a Canadian gets into the quarterfinals, I’m glued to the online scoring,” said Sherk. “And I thought we would win for sure in 2010.”
Canada’s last big chance to get a finalist in the championship match of the U.S. Women’s Amateur came in 2010, when Jennifer Kirby and Stephanie Sherlock both advanced to the semifinals.
Kirby lost, 1-up, to eventual champion Danielle Kang, while Sherlock lost, 4 and 3, to Jessica Korda. Kang went on to win the 2010 championship.
“I can’t believe Brooke is only 16,” added Streit, who won the 1956 U.S. Women’s Am over JoAnne Gunderson. “These kids have been around the world and they’re so young. It’s fun to watch.”
Henderson, who was the low amateur at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, left the course dejected, but one step closer to a championship.
“Sometimes, even when you work hard, things don’t happen, but Brooke has rolled with the luck and rolled without the luck,” said Team Canada coach Tristan Mullally.
This week was Gillman’s week. Canada will have to wait until next year.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.