U.S. GIRLS' JUNIOR
Grateful Griffin Continues Underdog Run July 21, 2016 | Paramus, N.J. By Lisa D. Mickey

Kendall Griffin's first two matches went to the 18th hole, but she dug down for a 3-and-2 victory in the Round of 16. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

U.S. Girls' Junior Home

If quarterfinalist Kendall Griffin’s first experience with golf had turned out differently, the Floridian might not have lived to blow out the candles on her sixth birthday cake – much less progress through three rounds of match play at this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

Griffin, 17 outlasted 15th-seeded Jing Wen Lu of the People’s Republic of China, 3 and 2, in Thursday’s Round of 16 to move into Friday morning’s quarterfinals, where she is taking on Yujeong Son, of the Republic of Korea.

As an underdog 63rd-seeded player in the 64-competitor draw and at No. 585 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, Griffin said she was excited to continue progressing deeper into the championship.

“I can’t say that I’m where I expected to be in the tournament, but I’m very grateful to be in this spot,” said Griffin, of Sebring, Fla., who is playing in her fifth USGA championship. “I’m trying to stay confident and I want to go as far as I possibly can.”

And yet Griffin’s introduction to the game just about ended before it ever began.

As a 5-year-old, she tumbled out of a golf cart when her best friend, another 5-year-old who was sitting in her mother’s lap behind the wheel of the cart, yanked the steering wheel and sent Griffin flying straight onto the concrete.

“I landed on my head, cracked my skull, had a brain bleed, broke a bone in my neck and all the bones in my ear,” said Griffin, who, remarkably, spent only one night in the hospital.

“I don’t remember how painful it was, but something happened when I fell that is now a big reason for my religious faith,” she said. “I didn’t see God, but I felt his presence. Now, I play golf for God, who gave me my talent in this game.”

Griffin toured The Ridgewood Country Club in Thursday’s Round of 16 with three birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey, winning five holes to Lu’s two. It wasn’t always pretty, but Griffin found a way to grind out the win.

“I got really tired [on holes] 6 through 9, and my caddie said, ‘Let’s eat and drink something,’” said Griffin, whose two previous matches went to the 18th hole. “I think we were both tired because we were making mistakes we wouldn’t normally make.”

After some on-course nourishment, Griffin returned to form with back-to-back birdies on holes 10 and 11, won the 14th hole, and closed out the match on No. 16.

“It’s a lot of golf, and focusing for that long is pretty tough,” she added.

The teen has the looping services this week of Ridgewood caddie Mark McGwire, who has helped her read the course’s tricky and undulating greens.

“Without him, I wouldn’t have made it this far in the championship,” she said. “There are putts when I think the ball is going to roll one way and he tells me it’s going to roll a different way. He’s right and I trust him.”

Griffin made her USGA championship debut in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Bandon Dunes, where she and partner Athena Yang were medalists. She did not advance into match play in last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior, but was on the runner-up Florida team in the 2015 USGA State Team Championship.

Griffin and Yang lost, 1 up, in the first round of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Streamsong Resort in May. She hopes this week’s USGA championship could help her take another big step toward establishing herself as a contender in national events.

The home-schooled competitor has earned several state honors, winning the Florida State Golf Association’s Girls’ Junior Amateur Championship in 2013 and finishing as runner-up in 2014.

She was the Sebring High School girls’ golf most valuable player in 2013-2014, the 2013 Florida State Golf Association’s Girls Player of the Year, and finished 10th in the 2015 Harder Hall Women’s Invitational.

All, she says, are steps in the right direction, but still trail the nation’s top juniors.

“To be completely honest, I’ve been going through some swing changes for a while and I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m completely comfortable,” said Griffin. “When I get to tournaments, I just kind of play through it.”

If Griffin is working through a transition at this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, she appears to be on the right path – and grateful for every step along the way.