U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Crimson Tide Star Gillman Playing Semi-Home Game at Shoal Creek May 30, 2018 | SHOAL CREEK, Ala. By Julie Williams

Kristen Gillman is from Texas, but the University of Alabama star has local status this week at Shoal Creek. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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Kristen Gillman is not from Alabama. She’s a Texan, transplanted here as a star player at the University of Alabama. But at Shoal Creek for the 73rd U.S. Women’s Open, the giant Crimson A on her chest makes her as good as a local.

Gillman, who won the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur when she was 16, still doesn’t feel that she has a big enough name to draw a crowd in a major field. That says all you need to know about this 20-year-old from Austin whose golf resume is a mile long.

“If I played in any other event, I feel like crowds don’t really know who I am, but in Alabama they have more of an idea, so they’re cheering you on,” she said.

Gillman’s amateur resume is the thing of which young players dream. Her U.S. Women’s Amateur title opened many doors. By the time she arrived in Tuscaloosa to start her freshman year, she had already played in the Evian Championship, the U.S. Women’s Open, the Ricoh Women’s British Open and the Meijer LPGA Classic. Next week, she will compete in the 40th Curtis Cup Match at Quaker Ridge Golf Club.

Alabama head coach Mic Potter got eyes on Gillman before this whirlwind began. She committed to Alabama when she was a high school sophomore competing for Class 6A powerhouse Lake Travis High School in Austin.

Outside the confines of high school golf, Gillman clearly had talent, even if she didn’t yet have the trophies to validate it.

“She hadn’t won but she was always there, in contention having a chance and still being a year or two younger than most of the girls she was competing against,” Potter said.

Potter’s premonition came true when Gillman won the Junior PGA Championship then the U.S. Women’s Amateur during the summer of 2014. She wore braces and sported the Alabama logo.

Gillman was a woman on fire the day she took down Brooke Henderson in the Women’s Amateur final at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y., erasing a 3-down deficit after 26 holes to win, 2 up. Henderson, also 16 at the time, turned professional the following December. She has since won six times on the LPGA Tour, including the 2016 Women’s PGA Championship.

Gillman, meanwhile, remains committed to finishing her college career at Alabama. The peace of mind a degree brings is not lost on her. Potter and Alabama assistant coach Susan Rosenstiel have helped drive home that message. 

The Women’s Amateur title put Gillman’s career on a new trajectory. The confidence has helped turn her into a match-play buzzsaw, as evidenced at last week’s NCAA Women’s Championship. Gillman won all three of her matches, but Alabama lost to Arizona in the title match, 3-2.

Gillman, who played in the second match of the day and won on the 15th hole, felt a different kind of pressure in one of the few experiences that’s new to her at this point in her career.

Long after the last putt dropped, Alabama players had a heart-to-heart in the clubhouse over ice cream. After the drive back to Texas, Gillman took a day on the couch to recover.

“It was as much physical exhaustion as emotional,” she said. “Just pouring your heart out there the whole time.”

She was ready to go again by the end of the weekend.

This week is just the second Women’s Open start for Gillman. She endured a 36-hole qualifier sandwiched between NCAA Regionals, a Curtis Cup practice session at Quaker Ridge and the NCAA Championship. That run alone makes Gillman looks inexhaustible. She never considered skipping the Women’s Open qualifier, even though her explanation seemed quite modest.

“Only two people make it,” she said. “Your chances aren’t good anyway.”

Gillman was the medalist in her qualifier at Deerwood Golf Club in Kingwood, Texas.

When she played in the 2015 Women’s Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club, Gillman missed the cut. She was still nursing a wrist injury suffered in the second round of match play in the Women’s Amateur. Her club stuck in the lip of a fairway bunker, jarring her wrist hard enough to force a complete break from golf from November 2014 to April 2015.

“Heading into all those majors, I feel like it was a good learning experience, but having taken five months off golf, you obviously don’t have your best game,” she said.

Gillman’s father, Mark, remembers many of the details of that Women’s Open week. He and his daughter were excited by the prospect of playing a practice round with Lydia Ko. As the Women’s Amateur champion, Gillman drew a pairing with reigning Women’s Open champion Michelle Wie and Ricoh Women’s British Open champion Mo Martin. The marquee pairing attracted a lot of eyes.

“This year, it’s just, ‘Let’s go do our thing and not worry about anything else,’” Mark Gillman said.

Kristen comes off equally low key in everyday interactions, but Potter knows the attention-to-detail side of her that makes her so successful.

“She’s really high achieving and pretty intense about what she does,” Potter said. “She doesn’t give that impression, but she’s very driven.”

Something else that will be different this year than during the 2015 Women’s Open is Gillman’s golf bag. The USA Curtis Cup Team bag – all four USA players in the field are using their Curtis Cup bags this week – is the size of a tour player’s bag, which feels a little funny to Gillman.

“It’s weird because I’m playing with a tour bag but I’m still an amateur,” she said.

This family is not one to skip steps.

“When you’re in junior golf, you’re always in a hurry to get to college golf, and when you’re in college golf, you’re always in a hurry to get to pro golf,” said Mark. “I would give anything to go back to junior golf. That was, to me, the most fun.”

Kristen, with a world of opportunity at her feet, is only moving forward.

Julie Williams is a Florida-based freelance writer.

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