U.S. GIRLS' JUNIOR
U.S. Women’s Open Exemption Gives Players Additional Incentive July 15, 2018 | Pebble Beach, Calif. By David Shefter, USGA

A U.S. Women's Open spot and a chance to play for the Harton S. Semple Trophy now goes to the Girls' Junior champion. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Rachel Kuehn has only attended one U.S. Women’s Open, but she doesn’t remember anything about it.

For good reason. Kuehn was a month from being born when her mother, Brenda Corrie-Kuehn, competed in the last of her nine U.S. Women’s Opens in 2001 at Pine Needles Resort & Lodge.

Rachel, 17, of Asheville, N.C., is carving her own niche in the game. This week at Poppy Hills Golf Course she is competing in her third consecutive U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, where the champion, thanks to a new exemption announced by the USGA last October, earns a spot in the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.).

It’s not something Rachel, who tried to qualify for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, and her mom discuss because “She is way too humble. My dad (Eric) and I were talking about [the exemption] because he is here with me this week. She played in nine and made two cuts and won’t mention it to anyone. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Kuehn and the rest of the 155 competitors would love nothing more than to etch their name on the Glenna Collet Vare Trophy while punching their ticket to next year’s Women’s Open. A year ago, Erica Shepherd became the first to earn that exemption, but didn’t find out until three months after defeating Jennifer Chang in the 36-hole final at Boone Valley Golf Club.

Shepherd admitted the pressure might have been elevated had she known going in about the Women’s Open spot.

This year’s competitors go into the championship fully comprehending the stakes.

“You’re not just playing for one trophy, you’re playing to get into [a major championship],” said Hailee Copper, 18, of Montgomery, Texas, one of eight players in the field who competed in last month’s U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek, where she tied for 55th. “It would be nerve-racking for sure.”

Cooper, who won the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball title with future University of Texas teammate Kaitlyn Papp, had an “awesome experience” at Shoal Creek and played Sunday’s final round with 2018 ANA Inspiration champion Pernilla Lindberg. The confidence she gained playing with world-class players was invaluable.

“It’s the most nervous I have ever been,” said Cooper. “If you can play well there, you can play well anywhere.”

In the last decade, the U.S. Girls’ Junior has been one of the fastest growing USGA championships, reaching four figures in entries nine consecutive years with a record total of 1,606 this year, nearly 200 more than the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Raising the age limit from 17 to 18 for both USGA Junior Championships has helped both in number of entries and quality of field. This year, three golfers with a year of college golf under their belt qualified, including Baylor rising sophomore Gurleen Kaur, who was a Golfweek honorable-mention All-American.

Since 2008, two U.S. Girls’ Junior champions have won majors – Lexi Thompson (2014 ANA Inspiration) and Ariya Jutanugarn (2018 U.S. Women’s Open) – and Minjee Lee owns four LPGA Tour titles. Go back 20 years and you have two-time U.S. Women’s Open and seven-time major champion Inbee Park, seven-time LPGA Tour winner I.K. Kim, and LPGA champions Julieta Granada and Jenny Shin.

Eight golfers in this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior field competed at Shoal Creek, with Shepherd being the lone exempt player. Elizabeth Wang, 18, of San Marino, Calif., one of four five-time Girls’ Junior competitors at Poppy Hills, tied for 34th.

“The girls here are amazing … and very, very skilled,” said Wang, who played alongside England’s Charley Hull in Sunday’s final round at Shoal Creek. “[Playing in the U.S. Women’s Open] really inspired me … and it also gave me a lot of hope. It provided that much-needed boost.”

Added Shepherd, a two-time U.S. Open competitor: “I think it just shows that junior golf is in a pretty good place and we can compete with the best in the world, no matter the age.”

Come Saturday, the USGA will trot out both the U.S. Girls’ Junior Trophy and the Harton S. Semple Trophy that is awarded to the U.S. Women’s Open champion. Both will reside on the first tee at the outset of the 36-hole championship match for the finalists to see what’s at stake. Talk about ratcheting up the pressure.

“You’re in the final match, so you are nervous no matter what,” said Kuehn. “That’s just adding a little bit to the pressure. Again, you go out and play your game and hope that you can get it done.”

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