U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Strong French Contingent Brings High Hopes to Women's Amateur August 8, 2015 | Portland, Ore. By Lisa D. Mickey

France brings a strong group of players to this week's U.S. Women's Amateur at Portland Golf Club. (Justine Dreher image courtesy of University of South Carolina). 

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

Ask any French woman golfer who inspired them and all would likely point to Catherine Lacoste, the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open champion who remains the only amateur to have won the title.

But while that milestone was achieved nearly 50 years ago, the recent talent coming  from France would undoubtedly impress Lacoste, who also won the 1969 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Several French players – male and female – have risen to elite levels in world rankings and made college coaches in the United States eager to recruit them.

Five players with French roots will compete in the 115th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Portland Golf Club. The contingent is led by Duke University senior Celine Boutier, No. 11 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WWAGR).

Justine Dreher, who completed her eligibility at the University of South Carolina, 17-year-old Mathilda Cappeliez, Stanford University sophomore Shannon Aubert, and former Arizona State player Emilie Alonso tie France – with Canada and Australia – for the most international players of the 17 countries represented in the field.

“I would really like to win it this year,” said Boutier, who lost in 20 holes in the Round of 32 last year to eventual champion Kristen Gillman at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y.

In 2012, Boutier again was eliminated by the eventual champion, losing 1 up to Lydia Ko in the Round of 16 at The Country Club in Pepper Pike, Ohio. She hopes her final appearance in the Women’s Amateur this summer will be the charm.

Boutier is coming off a victory in June at the Ladies British Open Amateur and she hopes to join Lacoste as one of the four golfers to win the British and American titles in the same season.

“Last year, I played really well in the beginning and I learned a lot in match play,” said Boutier, who missed the cut at last month’s U.S. Women’s Open before finishing 11th in the European Individual Championship in Austria. “I know you just have to stay focused to the end and remember that anything can happen.”

While French golf has enjoyed periodic success in the last 50 years – it hosted and won the inaugural Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in 1964 and added a second title in 2000 – the country recently is undergoing a renaissance on all levels.

France has won the European Ladies Amateur Team Championship the past two years and captured the 2014 European Girls Team title.

Individually, French players have also moved into the top 90 of the current WWAGR. Besides Boutier,  Dreher is currently No. 20, Cappeliez is No. 34 and No. 90 is Manon Gidali, of the University of Arizona. Meanwhile, Aubert (No. 216) helped Stanford to the 2015 NCAA Division I title.

“We are heading in the right direction,” said Patricia Meunier Lebouc, the 2003 Kraft Nabisco champion (now ANA Inspiration) who is now the national coach for the French Golf Federation. “It’s come after years and years of work and the results are starting to pay off.”

Duke assistant Jeanne Cho Stokke grew up in France, and before she arrived to play at the University of Florida, there was little encouragement for the best French players to play college golf in the U.S.

“There was always talent in France, but back then, the French Federation didn’t think about sending their best players to the U.S. to compete against the best players in the world,” said Stokke. “They were OK with them staying home to compete in Europe.”

Stokke credits numerous things for the recent success by French players, including increased funding, better coaching and a more “globalized” support system.

“The Federation really stepped up and started thinking more outside the box,” said Stokke, who helped recruit Boutier. “They saw what college golf can offer their players in the United States and it also helped their players stay amateur a little longer for European team championships. For the players, it let them get their education and play golf.”

A first-team All American who posted four top-10 finishes, Boutier arrived in Durham, N.C., like many other players who had been groomed in the French system. She had traveled throughout Europe and was already disciplined in tournament preparation.

 

Celine Boutier hopes to become the fifth golfer, and second from France, to win the U.S. and British Women's Amateur titles in the same year. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

Last year, she played as an amateur in the Evian Championship in France – one of five women’s professional major championships – and tied for 29th one stroke behind French LPGA Tour member Karine Icher. It gave the locals one more golfer to follow.

“She had played on the national team for years before she got to Duke,” said Stokke. “So she knew what it was to play for something other than herself.”

Kalen Anderson, coach at the University of South Carolina, first saw Dreher at the British Girls’ Junior Championship. Once Dreher came to the campus in Columbia and adjusted to life in America, she broke school records and elevated the Gamecocks’ program.

Dreher finished her senior season this spring as a first-team All American and established a single-season scoring average of 72.53.

“Justine came here as a team player and she helped us build our program at South Carolina,” said Anderson. “She will always have a special place here.”

Ironically, Dreher had to face compatriot Cappeliez at the Dixie Women’s Amateur Championship last year in Florida, which Cappeliez won in three extra holes. Cappeliez represented France at the 2013 Spirit International and also qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at 16.

As for Alonso, former Arizona State coach Melissa McNamara Luellen loved her tenacity on the course. With flying pigtails and an infectious spirit, the four-time French national champion helped buoy the Sun Devils more than once.

“She never won individually in college, but she was a difference-maker in many tournaments,” said Luellen, who recently left ASU to become the coach at Auburn. “I wanted her teammates to watch her because she would fist-pump on a 12-inch putt.”

Aubert, who moved to Florida at age 11, and started playing for the French National Team at 14, won all three of her matches in the Cardinal’s run to the NCAA title in May.

The two-time Florida State individual champion and winner of the 2013 Dixie Women’s Amateur posted two top-10 finishes last season as a freshman.

But Lebouc said the bigger picture for French golf is the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Having golf on the Olympic program provides  a “better link between amateur and professional golf” in France.

“The results we now see reinforces the fact that what we are doing works,” said  Lebouc.”

Had finances been better in the 1920s, France, not Great Britain and Ireland, might be competing biennially for the Curtis Cup. While France turned down the initial offer for this burgeoning international competition, it didn’t completely alter its history in the game. The country is scheduled to host the Ryder Cup Matches in 2018, and if this current crop of elite amateur females continues to blossom in the future, perhaps a Solheim Cup might be awarded to the country as well.

Lacoste certainly would be proud of the current climate.

“For sure, our players have met Catherine Lacoste and they know her accomplishments in golf,” said Lebouc. “Tradition is important in our country, so we build on it and use the energy of the modern day to help our players in the future.”

And maybe this week as well.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.

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