Karen Garcia Wins 2015 U.S. Senior Women's Amateur at Hillwood October 1, 2015 | NASHVILLE, TENN. By Greg Midland, USGA

With daylight waning and after a long week of golf, Karen Garcia of Cool, Calif., came back from a late deficit to win her first USGA title. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

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Karen Garcia overcame her opponent’s tenacity, as well as a couple of late miscues to emerge victorious in the 2015 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, conducted at the 5,857-yard, par-72 Hillwood Country Club.

It is the first USGA championship victory for the 53-year-old high school guidance counselor from Cool, Calif., about an hour’s drive east of Sacremento. In defeating her longtime friend Pamela Kuong, 52, of Wellesley Hills, Mass., Garcia showed a combination of power and short-game touch that proved worthy of a champion.

“I'm in shock,” said the champion. “To win a USGA event, to think of all the people before me that have their name on this trophy; I've played in five Mid-Ams and a State Team and never even come close.”

In order to get to the afternoon final, both players had to survive morning semifinal matches, which were pushed to Thursday due to extensive weather delays earlier in the week. Garcia defeated 2013 Senior Women’s Amateur runner-up Sue Cohn, 52, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., 1 up, and Kuong survived a 21-hole match with Tama Caldabaugh of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Like many matches this week in Nashville, light rain fell as the two players began the final at 1:10 CDT. The longer-hitting Garcia figured to have an advantage in the soft conditions, and jumped out to a 2-up lead through three holes.

Kuong cut Garcia’s lead to 1 up on the next hole with a two-putt par as the two players, who first met at the 2007 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship at Desert Forest Country Club in Carefree, Ariz., chatted regularly in between shots. They showed some fatigue on the outward nine as the intermittent rain and wind added to the challenge, but Garcia was able to regain a 2-up lead by using her distance advantage on the 504-yard, par-5 sixth hole.

Garcia seemed to take greater control of the match on the uphill, par-4 ninth hole, where she sunk a 6-footer for birdie that gave her a 3-up lead at the turn, not that she took it for granted.

“I figured Pam would start making some shots and I would have to tough it out,” said Garcia.

Indeed, just like Kuong had been doing to her opponents all week, she mounted a comeback. Starting at the par-3 11th hole, the senior vice president at Bank of America in Boston won four of the next six holes, three of them with birdies, to turn her deficit to Garcia into a 1-up lead.

“I finally found my swing and played a lot better on the back nine,” said Kuong. .

Throughout the match, Garcia out-drove Kuong by a wide margin, but Kuong used timely putting to get right back in the mix. Those putts included a 12-footer for birdie on No. 14 and an 18-foot effort on No. 15, a par 5 where Garcia hit the green in two.

The players arrived at the 170-yard 16th hole all square, and for a while it looked like their swings there just might decide the match in Kuong’s favor. After Kuong hit her hybrid tee shot onto the green, 35 feet above the hole, Garcia hooked hers long and left, giving her an awkward pitch from very close to the tree line that separates the course from Hillwood Avenue. She took two shots to reach the green and then missed her bogey effort, conceding Kuong’s par that gave her the 1-up lead.

On her way to the 17th tee, Garcia gave herself a pep talk.

“I knew that I had an advantage length-wise,” said Garcia about the 460-yard, par-5 17th. “So I felt like I still had a chance. I told my husband, let's win the next two holes and we'll be fine.”

That’s just what happened, helped by a mistake by Kuong. After driving into the light rough, she tried to carry a creek with her second shot on the 460-yard par 5, and instead found the water hazard.

“I really should have laid up before the hazard because I still was 1-up,” said Kuong. I didn't have to go over it. That was a mistake on my part. You know, in hindsight I would like to have that shot back.”

Garcia won the hole with a stress-free, conceded par, and the friendly competitors arrived at the 18th tee in front of a sizable gallery despite gloomy, overcast conditions. Garcia’s drive was more than 60 yards ahead of Kuong’s, and after Kuong failed to convert a 20-foot par putt, Garcia won the match by making an uphill four-footer of her own.

“To have stayed calm all week and stayed in the moment, as they say, was the biggest challenge,” said Garcia. “You’ve got to get out of your own way and have a good week.”

“I'm so happy for Karen,” said a gracious Kuong. “Karen is a great person and she deserved it. She made the clutch birdies when she had to.”

With the victory, Garcia is now exempt into the next 10 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championships and Kuong receives exemptions into the next three. Both finalists are also exempt into the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, to be held at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa.

Garcia and Kuong could have also played in the upcoming U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, which begins on Saturday, October 3 at Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, La. However, both declined the exemption in favor of returning to their respective hometowns, jobs and families.

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