U.S. WOMEN'S MID-AMATEUR
Two Competitors Embrace Golf With a Quicker Pace September 12, 2016 | Erie, Pa. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Gretchen Johnson picked up golf after college, and Speedgolf has allowed her to combine the game with her love of running. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

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Among the competitors in the 30th U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur are a world champion and a world runner-up who are eyeing a possible rematch next month.

“I knew she was here, but haven’t had a chance to catch up with her,” said Lauren Cupp, of Rome, N.Y., tongue firmly in cheek. The player to whom she was referring, Gretchen Johnson, defeated Cupp in the women’s amateur division of the 2015 Speedgolf World Championships last October at the Glen Club, in Glenview, Ill.

Speedgolf is the combination of the traditional game with a quickened pace. Players are allowed to carry no more than seven clubs, although most carry fewer, and their score is the combination of the number of strokes played with the elapsed minutes. Last fall in winds that gusted to 40 miles an hour at the Glen Club, Johnson shot 86 in 52 minutes (138) to defeat Cupp, who shot 93 in 58 minutes (151).

“I know they call it the Windy City for a reason, but these were absolutely wild weather conditions,” said Cupp, 31, who is the associate head golf coach at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., her alma mater.

Cupp and her husband, Wes, own Rome Country Club and they hosted the New York Speedgolf Open on Aug. 29 at their course.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but it became this huge event,” said Cupp, who has a 2½-year-old daughter, Leslie, and is expecting her first son in January. “We got applications from the West Coast, Ireland and New Zealand, and we were contacted by ESPN, which sent a five-man video crew.” The segment is expected to air this week on SportsCenter.

Wes Cupp won the professional/elite division of the event, shooting 3-under-par 69 on his home course in 46 minutes, defeating Rob Hogan of Galway, Ireland, a two-time world Speedgolf champion.

“It was kind of a storybook ending for us,” said Cupp, who competed in her first USGA championship this week and gave 2014 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Margaret Shirley-Starosto all she could handle before losing, 2 and 1, in the Round of 64 on Monday. “I won the nine-hole division – I didn’t play 18 because I’m six months pregnant.”

Cupp’s best Speedgolf score is a round of 79 in 52 minutes at Yahnundasis Golf Club in New Hartford, N.Y. Not surprisingly, Cupp and Johnson share another trait along with their love of Speedgolf – both ran track and field in college.

“I’ve always been into the running thing,” said Cupp. “I do triathlons – I like the fitness part of this, the way it really makes golf into a sport. I just stumbled upon it on the internet about three years ago and I thought it would be a cool combination for me.”

Speedgolf events have been contested since 2002, and next month’s competition at the Glen Club is billed as the fifth world championship. Cupp and Johnson met at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort a couple of years ago when it hosted the world championship. In 2012, Johnson, 30, competed in the elite division and finished eighth, the low amateur in the 36-hole competition over the resort’s Old Macdonald and Bandon Dunes courses.

“I started playing golf about seven years ago,” said Johnson, who graduated from New York University in 2008 and is a marketing manager for Nike. “I’m still very young in my competitive career and my golf journey. I continue to learn a lot about different shots, techniques, the ebbs and flows of the game.”

Johnson has been an athlete her entire life, and counts four Boston Marathons among the 10 that she has completed. At various times she has played track, basketball, soccer, tennis, squash and cycling, noting, “I still love to play hoops and take people’s money at H-O-R-S-E.” One of her highlights is beating Bo Jackson at the Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas.

“I kind of fell into Speedgolf,” said Johnson, who recently spent three weeks working at Nike’s Olympic athlete hospitality venue in Rio de Janeiro, where she saw some of the historic golf competition. “My father [Bruce] introduced me to Christopher Smith, who holds the world Speedgolf record, and I picked it up pretty quickly. It’s a lot like the biathlon – equal parts endurance and skill. You’ve got to find that right balance of moving quickly but keeping your composure and be able to hit good shots.”

Cupp notes another advantage of the quicker game.

“It’s great with a growing family,” said Cupp. “I can find 45 minutes in my day, but to find five hours with the full-time coaching job, the little one and the golf course, it’s hard. My husband was never a runner, so it’s a new thing for him. He can only play three or four regular rounds of golf a year, but with Speedgolf, he can play two or three nights a week.”

Cupp and her husband are also providing entrée to this fledgling form of golf to the next generation.

A mother and college golf coach, Lauren Cupp says Speedgolf allows her to fit more of the game into her busy schedule. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

“Wes and I run a junior program – the Mohawk Valley Junior Golf Tour – which has about 100 golfers,” said Cupp. “At least once a year, we talk about pace of play and we do a Speedgolf event. It’s great for young kids who want to be active and play golf, but don’t have the time to play traditional golf. We even do it once a week or so with my college players – we get out on the course and run a little bit.”

The quicker pace may seem foreign to traditional golf, but both players find parallels and benefits.

“I would argue that the principles of speed golf help in a normal round,” said Johnson, who was also competing in her first USGA championship this week and missed the cut for match play by one stroke. “There is something to be said for trusting your first instinct. I think golfers would agree that once you start to second-guess yourself and let doubt creep into your mind, you’re in trouble. You’re still going through that pre-shot routine, you’re just condensing it to 10 seconds.”

Because there is a club limit, players are forced to be more creative.

“I usually have only five or six clubs in my bag when I play Speedgolf,” said Cupp. “You learn to hit a lot of punch shots, high and low shots, half-shots with all different clubs.”

“I think in a lot of cases, people are surprised by how well they play tee to green and how comparable their score is,” said Johnson. “And there are different ways of approaching it: you can just walk faster, or jog one hole and walk the next, jog with a three-wheeled cart…”

Even as they prepare for next month’s Speedgolf event (Cupp may bow out as she nears her due date), both players reveled in the chance to compete in their first USGA championship.

“This has been awesome – a surreal experience, really,” said Cupp, who has twice been an alternate for the championship. “It’s so nice that someone of my caliber can play in an event like this and see what it’s like between the lines. I can’t wait to go home and tell everyone about it.”

“It’s the Super Bowl of golf, from an amateur standpoint,” said Johnson, who missed qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur by one stroke in 2015. “It’s the pinnacle of where you want to compete, test your game and your skills.”

These are two players for whom pace of play is unlikely to be an issue.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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