U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Potter, Shirley Juggle Amateur Golf with Jobs Promoting Game August 9, 2015 | Portland, Ore. By David Shefter, USGA

Julia Potter (left) and Margaret Shirley enjoy the best of two worlds: competing in USGA championships while working in the golf business. (USGA/Chris Keane)

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

The mid-amateur golfer has almost become an endangered species in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. They aren’t going the way of the dinosaurs, but this isn’t a stock trending upward, either.

Part of the reality is elite players turn professional younger than ever, perhaps before they ever set foot on a college campus. And if they don’t succeed at that level, many don’t return to competitive amateur golf, choosing instead to focus on career and family.

That can partially explain why Canadian Cathy Sherk remains the last Women’s Amateur champion over the age of 25. She won at the age of 28 in 1978. Robin Burke is the last mid-amateur to reach a final, finishing runner-up to Silvia Cavalleri in 1997, at the age of 34.

While the U.S. Women’s Amateur attracted record entries for a fourth consecutive year – 1,303 in 2015 – this week’s field of 156 at Portland Golf Club includes only six mid-amateurs, four of whom earned exemptions by being finalists in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur or U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, or winning either of those championships in 2013.

That group includes Margaret Shirley, 29, of Atlanta, Ga., and Julia Potter, 27, of Indianapolis, Ind., the last two U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champions who faced each other in the 2013 and 2014 finals. Both are reinstated amateurs who now work to promote the game: 2014 champion Shirley as the executive director of Atlanta Junior Golf (AJG) and 2013 winner Potter as the director of marketing for the Indiana Golf Office, which encompasses several associations, including the Indiana Golf Association, Indiana Women’s Golf Association and Indiana Section of the PGA of America.

“I can count on both hands how many times I played golf this summer,” said Shirley, who was promoted to executive director five months ago.

Both would also like to see more 20- and 30-year-olds competing, whether it’s in state/regional events or USGA championships, but understand the challenges facing the postgraduate female golfer.

Potter has only competed in four events since May, one of them a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier.

“We need to encourage everyone out there to get out and play,” said Potter, who won this year’s Indiana Women’s Amateur by 11 strokes. “I have a teammate (Michelle Morgan) from college who hadn’t played tournament golf in four years. She recently moved back to Indy. I told her to play all these tournaments with me. At the end of the day, that’s what I would like to be a voice for.

“There are girls I played with in college who had amazing games and amazing personalities, and a love and passion for the sport. I want them to feel encouraged to come back out here and play.”

Potter’s explanation encapsulates the mid-amateur dilemma. Even though Shirley and Potter are passionate competitors, they realize they are longshots to hoist the Robert Cox Trophy.

But they can put their aspirations in proper perspective.

“I’m probably one of the most competitive people you can meet,” said Shirley, who narrowly missed match play in last year’s Women’s Amateur at Nassau Country Club. “If I play well, great, but if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. I still have a job to go back to.”

Margaret Shirley (right) and Julia Potter, both in their late 20s, have shown you can win national championships while maintaining a career. (USGA/Chris Keane) 

At AJG, Shirley oversees 1,000 members from ages 7-18 with diverse levels of abilities. The program conducts 115 tournaments in various divisions. The program holds special meaning for Shirley, who got her start there 17 years ago in par-3 events. Three years ago, she left her post as an assistant coach at Auburn, her alma mater, to become manager of rules and competitions. She doesn’t regret leaving coaching, especially now that she works in her hometown and doesn’t have to travel or recruit players.

Her job requires overseeing the operation, everything from financials to obtaining tournament sites to managing a bevy of paid part-timers – mostly college students – who run the events. The USGA provides a paid P.J. Boatwright Intern, with assistant executive director Michael Rakowski the only other full-time employee.

Considering her heavy workload and recent engagement, finding available free time for golf is a challenge. Tournament rounds have been scarce. Last January, she was part of a four-person USGA contingent chosen to play the South American Amateur in Chile. This summer, Shirley reached the quarterfinals of the Georgia State Golf Association Women’s Match Play, losing in 19 holes to incoming University of Georgia freshman Rinko Mitsunaga despite playing 4-under-par golf. She also posted a top-10 finish in the Georgia Women’s Open.

Shirley ,who became engaged to Michael Starosto on Aug. 1, briefly tried professional golf after graduating from Auburn in 2008, but quickly tired of mini-tour golf after six months. By July 2010, she was a reinstated amateur and her appearance in the Women’s Amateur at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club came days after receiving the notice from the USGA. She admits her game is better today than it was five years ago, and proof has come in the last two Women’s Mid-Amateurs. She avenged a 19-hole defeat to Potter in 2013 by beating her last fall at Harbour Trees Golf Club outside of Indianapolis.

The two have since become friends and are developing a budding mid-amateur rivalry they hope will continue for many years.

“Why I love it is everyone who is there just loves golf,” said Shirley of the Women’s Mid-Amateur. “I’m just here because I love golf. I wish a lot of people can see that just because you are not a professional, you still have a place to play and compete.”

Potter skipped last year’s Women’s Amateur because she had just left a job in Texas for her current position. And knowing she also was exempt for 2015, she chose Oregon over Long Island for a sentimental reason. Seven years ago in her last Women’s Amateur appearance, she reached the Round of 32 at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. Back then, she was a rising senior at the University of Missouri while working that summer as a Boatwright Intern with the Missouri Golf Association.

That internship got Potter to thinking about a future career in golf, not as a player but on the other side of the fence.

She saw the marketing job at the Indiana Golf Office as a perfect career move. Her duties include soliciting advertising for its tri-annual magazine – and writing an occasional story – and running local Drive, Chip & Putt competitions in the state. She also promotes Indiana Golf Charities Day, where 22 pros from around the state play 72 holes in one day at Broadmoor Country Club in Indianapolis. Pledges are made for every birdie, with the proceeds going to the Indiana Golf Foundation and The First Tee. This past Monday, the event raised $62,000.

“It’s fun to go to work,” said Potter, the first female left-handed champion in USGA history. “And it’s not just golf. It’s really the staff I work with. They also have a passion for this game. You really see day in and day out we are trying to make it better for everybody in the state of Indiana.”

Potter is a role model for those afflicted with scoliosis, a medical condition that causes a curvature of the spine. Like LPGA Tour star Stacy Lewis, Potter has managed to compete after doctors surgically inserted a metal rod into her back.

“Nothing is hindering me from playing golf,” said Potter. “I am very cognizant of what I am doing to my back.”

The condition, however, has little to do with her fear of flying. Any sudden turbulence bothers Potter, who always sits near a window to temper her anxiety. The irony is she hopes to someday visit all 50 states, several of which require flights. Only eight remain, including Hawaii and Alaska, but one (Louisiana) comes off in October when she plays in the Women’s Mid-Amateur at Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, La.

“I’m a conundrum,” said Potter of her aviophobia.

But she’s not scared to compete, not even against elite juniors or college stars. This week, she hopes experience trumps youth.

“It’s all going to be about the mentality you have,” said Potter. “Experience can be a blessing or a plus rather than a minus.

“I’ve never been in a tournament where I thought I couldn’t win. You have to have that mentality. I have this chance. There are 156 players and we are all teeing off with one intent. As long as you make it that simple and it’s just golf, and age has nothing to do with it, then anybody has a chance.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

 

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