Barrington, R.I. – For nearly two hours late Tuesday afternoon, a nervous Elyse Smidinger milled around the Rhode Island Country Club clubhouse, going from the veranda to the television scoring displays and eventually out to the large scoreboard adjacent to the first fairway.
Her final round of stroke-play qualifying at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur had just ended with some anxious moments. She had made five consecutive pars, including a couple of 4-foot testers, to post 7-over-par 149.
Now would she or wouldn’t she need to be ready for a possible playoff?
As the sun began to set and the final scores started trickling in, the 17-year-old from Crofton, Md., figured it was best to go hit some putts. It’s always good to be prepared for extra golf than to walk to the tee cold.
When Brittany Henderson of Canada bogeyed her 36th hole, the par-4 ninth, on the 100-year-old Donald Ross layout, Smidinger finally got the news she was hoping for.
Smidinger joined Henderson, Emily Collins, Kendall Prince and Haley Stephens in a 5-for-1 playoff for the last spot in the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur match-play draw.
Last month, Smidinger had been in a similar situation at her sectional qualifier, making two consecutive birdies to complete an even-par 72 at Braemar Golf Course in Edina, Minn. Smidinger then edged Olivia Lansing on the first playoff hole to punch her ticket to her first Women’s Amateur.
So she brought personal experience to the late-afternoon soiree that began on the 380-yard, par-4 15th hole. Taking advantage of her newfound life, Smidinger made consecutive pars in the windy and rainy conditions – the second of which came at the 395-yard 16th hole to eliminate the final two players (Prince and Collins) – to earn a first-round match Wednesday morning against stroke-play co-medalist and No. 1 seed Jihee Kim of Korea.
Tired from the long day, Smidinger said she slept well and felt like she had nothing to lose against the 17-year-old phenom who shot a 63 at last fall’s Women’s World Amateur Team Championship while leading Korea to a 17-stroke win in Argentina.
Despite some first-tee butterflies and extra attention from the Golf Channel cameras, Smidinger jumped out to an early 4-up lead and held on for a 2-and-1 victory, easily one of her biggest in a competitive golf career that began only four years ago.
Not bad for someone who appeared to be headed home after the 36-hole stroke-play portion of the championship.
I didn’t really think I had a chance, said Smidinger as she watched the scores Tuesday afternoon. It felt like forever. Then later when we were looking at the scoreboard, [we saw] there could be a possibility [for a playoff].
While a No. 64 seed has never claimed a USGA championship, Alexandra Frazier nearly pulled off the feat last year at the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur, advancing to the championship match before falling to Mina Hardin. At the 2005 U.S. Amateur Public Links, Clay Ogden won the title from the No. 63 spot in the draw.
Despite her struggles in stroke play – she shot 76-73 – Smidinger came to Rhode Island C.C. riding a bit of confidence after shooting a championship-low 68 and finishing in a tie for ninth place at last week’s Canadian Girls’ Junior Championship at Quilchena Golf & Country Club in suburban Vancouver, B.C.
Her only previous USGA competition had concluded with a missed cut in the 2010 U.S. Girls’ Junior at The Country Cub of North Carolina.
On the state and local level, however, the senior-to-be at Arundel High School has enjoyed plenty of recent success. She twice has won the Maryland State Golf Association Girls’ Junior (2009 and 2011), and is a two-time runner-up in the Maryland Women’s Amateur, losing to Kaitlyn Rohrback in the final in late July at Lake Presidential Golf Club.
Last fall, Smidinger won the Maryland State High School Championship.
Then again, winning big titles isn’t unusual for Smidinger. Eight years ago, she was the Level 6 Maryland state gymnastics champion. She continued in the sport until she reached Level 9 – or two levels from being a national elite gymnast – before she realized she wasn’t going to be the next Mary Lou Retton.
The summer of her final year of gymnastics, Smidinger started hitting golf balls for fun. That winter she gave up vaulting and somersaulting for chipping and putting.
Physically, I kind of grew out of it, said Smidinger of her gymnastics career. Gymnastics not only [helped my golf] physically with flexibility and strength, but mentally. Controlling your nerves. It’s helped build confidence.
Her parents live along the first fairway of Crofton Country Club, so Elyse often went out and putted in the afternoon with her father, Eric, an avid sportsman who is serving as her caddie this week. Her mom, Betsy, was a scholarship swimmer (breaststroke and individual medley) for the University of Maryland and both of Elyse’s older siblings are college athletes. Max, 22, just finished playing soccer and swimming for Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia and Sierra, 21, is entering her senior year at George Washington University, where she plays on the school’s Division I soccer team.
Elyse will carry on the family athletic tradition next fall when she plays for the University of Denver women’s golf team.
Of course, she still has golf to play at Rhode Island C.C. Beating the co-medalist certainly was a good start.
Hopefully it brings some confidence to my game tomorrow, she said of her Thursday morning second-round match-up against Brooke Pancake of Chattanooga, Tenn. My goal coming into this event was to make the cut. But, of course, I want to win it.
Sometimes second chances do pay off.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at email@example.com.