U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Dambaugh's Hardwood Prowess Paved Way to Golf Stardom August 3, 2016 | Springfield, Pa. By Lisa D. Mickey

Katelyn Dambaugh's tenacity on the court helped lead to a golf scholarship at the University of South Carolina, where she has flourished. (USGA/Steven Gibbons) 

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

University of South Carolina women’s golf coach Kalen Anderson knew she had found the perfect player for her team one evening watching her play in one of the most-hyped high school events of the year.

Only it wasn’t on one of the Palmetto State’s many lush golf courses where Katelyn Dambaugh sealed the deal for her future college golf scholarship. It was actually on the hardwood floor of a gym with her high school, Pinewood Preparatory School, facing Columbia’s Heathwood Hall and 6-foot-5 star A’Ja Wilson. Wilson, then the nation’s No. 1 women’s basketball recruit, was being courted to play for the hometown Gamecocks as well as every major power, including the University of Connecticut, one of the preeminent dynasties in college sports.

Sharing a recruiting trip, Anderson, the women’s golf coach, sat in the stands with South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley. Staley was there hoping to sign Wilson and Anderson came hoping to sign Dambaugh, who had played on three basketball teams and six golf teams at Pinewood Prep that had all won state championships.

As the coaches watched the two recruits for their respective programs, neither expected what they saw next. Dambaugh, a shooting guard and 3-point specialist, went after Wilson on the court and stripped the ball out of the star player’s hands for a clean steal.

“I looked at Dawn and said, ‘My golf recruit just stripped your basketball recruit,’” laughed Anderson, who is caddieing this week for Dambaugh in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Rolling Green Golf Club.

And that was the hoops move that won the golfer a college scholarship.

“She’s a competitor, an athlete, and she’s out there to play great every day,” said Anderson. “Kate is aggressive and whether it’s 3-point shots in basketball or putts in golf, she likes to knock them down. That’s what I love about her.”

And that’s the way Dambaugh has always rolled, bouncing from high school practices for softball, basketball, golf, soccer and volleyball. The right-hander from Goose Creek, S.C., batted left-handed in softball and plays golf as a southpaw. She is one of only three left-handed players in the field in this week’s championship.

She also played No. 1 on her high school’s girls’ golf team and No. 2 on the boys’ squad.

“My parents allowed me to live a very balanced lifestyle with sports and friends and I am appreciative of that,” said Dambaugh, 21, who advanced to the first round of Wednesday’s match play after tying for fifth in stroke play at 4-under 138.

That tenacious spirit and never-quit spunk allowed Dambaugh to finish as runner-up in the 2010 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. It also has enabled the South Carolinian to build on her athleticism to become a more patient and strategic golfer.

“She hits it long and gets herself in scoring positions, so she’s worked hard to improve her wedge game and mental game,” said Anderson. “That’s why she’s had so much more consistent play this year.”

And the years the South Carolina senior spent as a member on different teams has also brought added value to the Gamecocks’ squad.

“She has a great concept of playing on a team and she’s a good leader,” Anderson added. “She responds to more of the basketball coach in-your-face thing every once in a while and she’s one of the few players I can do that with. It seems to just make her the competitor she is.”

Dambaugh stepped up for the Gamecocks during the recent 2015-2016 season. She was named to All-SEC teams in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and was a 2016 Women’s Golf Coaches Association First-Team All-American.

She now holds the Gamecocks’ career scoring average record at 72.96, and single-season scoring average record of 71.62 (set this season). In three years at South Carolina, she has recorded 10 top-five finishes and 14 top 10s.

She was also the medalist at the 2016 NCAA Baton Rouge Regional, matching the event’s record score of 9-under 207. She also equaled the school's low 18-hole score (65) and 54-hole total (207) at the 2015 Annika Intercollegiate, where she finished third.

“I think I matured a lot coming into last year and my coaches have offered positive reinforcement, reminding me that I can’t get down after certain shots or rounds,” said Dambaugh, a sport management major. “Former teammates who graduated also helped me move into a position of leadership on our team.”

Dambaugh is optimistic about this week’s championship, and she’s also eager to dive into the event’s match play, a format that suits her competitive drive.

“In match play, it’s like you’re going against that one person and you want to beat them,” she said. “I love the in-your-face stuff.”

But while Dambaugh loves to play hard and win, she also has a genuine soft spot for a fallen friend.

She carries a college golf bag with the name of a close family friend inscribed on a side panel through the Folds of Honor program. U.S. Air Force Major W. David Gray was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 8, 2012. Dambaugh and her family will observe the four-year anniversary of his death in a few days.

But on her way from South Carolina to Pennsylvania for this week’s championship, Dambaugh and her family made a stop in Washington, D.C., to visit Arlington National Cemetery. It was her first visit to her friend’s gravesite.

“It was hard to be there, but it felt like I was close to him,” said Dambaugh, who was a high school senior when her friend was killed. “I was crying, but I’m glad we went.”

Dambaugh has a special ball marker commemorating her fallen friend and she treasures a photo she has at home of the officer lifting her up in his strong arms.

She also wears golf shoes throughout the college golf season that bear two words her friend always used to say to her any time she competed.

“He always told me to finish strong, so I have the word ‘Finish’ on one shoe and ‘Strong’ on the other,” said Dambaugh. “They are words I can still hear and always will.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.