U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
O'Sullivan's Progress Meteoric, Yet Measured July 7, 2015 | Lancaster, Pa. By Stuart Hall

Just 17 and already a winner on the Symetra Tour, Hannah O'Sullivan hopes to become the No. 1 player in the world, but college awaits. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

At age 17, Hannah O’Sullivan has already won a professional tournament and is a major-championship veteran.

O’Sullivan understands that she needs to build on those experiences to reach her ultimate goal, that of being the world’s No. 1 player. The rising high school senior is more than willing to embrace that challenge. In due time, though.

A glimpse of O’Sullivan’s career plan was revealed when she explained her decision-making process for committing to the University of Southern California in 2016.

“Junior golf was geared for getting a college scholarship, but my ultimate goal is to become the best player in the world after I graduate from college and play on the tour, so I think it’s a really important steppingstone for me,” she said on Monday before a lengthy short-game practice session in preparation for her second U.S. Women’s Open start.

O’Sullivan, of Chandler, Ariz., has largely built the foundation of her game on the national junior circuit. In 2015 alone, she has won three American Junior Golf Association events, including a pair of upper-tier tournaments in recent weeks.

Those AJGA results, along with being a semifinalist in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur have contributed to her No. 7 World Amateur Golf Ranking, which is second among the American contingent. O’Sullivan’s standing could be bolstered depending on her performance this week,as well as how she fares in the upcoming U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur championships. O’Sullivan, who finished runner-up with partner Robynn Ree in the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball in May, is likely in the mix for a spot on the 2016 USA Curtis Cup Team.

What placed O’Sullivan on a more recognizable national level was winning the Symetra Tour’s Gateway Classic in February in Mesa, Ariz. Playing on a sponsor exemption, O’Sullivan became the youngest winner in the LPGA developmental tour’s history. She entered the final round with a four-stroke lead and rolled to a tournament record 15-under score despite admittedly not playing her best on the final nine.  

“I played really solid throughout the week, and didn’t realize what I was doing,” O’Sullivan said. “I was in the zone I guess you could say, just taking it one shot at a time and hitting some good approach shots and making a lot of putts. I knew I was leading and that it was sort of a big deal, but I was able to push that out of my mind and just go after it.”

That will be her mindset as she seeks to improve on her only U.S. Women’s Open appearance. She shot 76-78 to miss the cut at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., in 2012. 

“I was 14 my first time and I was really young,” said O’Sullivan. “I’m better prepared this time around and having that experience behind me, I am not as starstruck this week. I am able to focus on my own game and able to approach it as just another tournament and see what I can do."

Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open winner at Oakmont Country Club, has plenty of empathy for O’Sullivan.

“To be awestruck is to be normal, very normal,” said Creamer, who is scheduled to play nine holes with O’Sullivan on Wednesday. “I remember when I would play in these events as an amateur and I would literally stand on the range and look at all these players and think ‘How is it I am here?’ But you have to learn that you belong and have confidence. But there is a reason why she is here and that’s because she is good.”

Three years ago, O’Sullivan played practice rounds with Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson and Ai Miyazato. This week, she also played nine holes with Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu on Tuesday.

That is prime one-on-one time with five major champions who have combined to win 10 majors, half of them U.S. Women’s Opens. O’Sullivan has tried not to squander the opportunity.

“It takes maybe one hole to calm the nerves down, but then I’m fine. There is just so much I can learn from them, so I just have to take the opportunity and ask whatever I can,” said O’Sullivan, who is apparently a quick learner, given that she is a straight-A student who scored 35 out of 36 on the ACT. 

Despite her limited U.S. Women’s Open experience, O’Sullivan has a particular edge on the field this week. Two years ago, she tied for fourth in the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions that was held on this classic William Flynn-designed course. Although the course played roughly 400 yards shorter than it will this week, O’Sullivan’s length off the tee should negate that.

Plus she has a less-cluttered mindset since switching to instructor Shawn Callahan 10 months ago.

“My ball striking has come a long way in the time I have worked with him,” she said. “But also simplifying the game. I learned last year that I was a feel player and I have too many technical thoughts in my head. So we have worked on simplifying my swing so I am able to focus on the target and pull the trigger.”

O’Sullivan understands the improbability of winning this championship as an amateur, but given that French amateur Catherine Lacoste pulled off the feat 48 years ago, the teen enters with a sliver of hope.

Imagine the statement such a win would make.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.