Kay Cockerill eagerly looks forward to working the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship every August as part of Golf Channel’s broadcasting team. It’s a chance for the former LPGA Tour player-turned-announcer to get an up-close-and-personal look at some of the fledgling talent in the women’s game as they perform under intense pressure.
But forgive Cockerill if she appears a little more giddy than usual when she arrives to work the 2011 Women’s Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, where 24 years ago she claimed the second of her back-to back Women’s Amateur titles. It also was Cockerill’s final amateur triumph before turning professional later that fall.
It was such an idyllic week, said Cockerill, one of 11 players to successfully defend the Women’s Amateur title. I instantly loved that golf course. There was no trickery. It was just a delightful seaside course.
I haven’t been out there in more than 10 years. I’m hoping to have a refresher before I commentate on it. I’m not one of those people who can remember every single shot from every hole that I have played.
A Northern California native from Los Gatos, Cockerill claimed her first U.S. Women’s Amateur title in her backyard, at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz. Already a standout at UCLA, where she had become an All-American after initially walking on to the women’s golf team, Cockerill’s national breakthrough came at the 1986 Women’s Amateur. In the 36-hole final, she defeated Northern California rival Kathleen McCarthy by a whopping 9-and-7 margin. That victory landed Cockerill a spot on the USA Women’s World Amateur Team that finished third in Venezuela, four strokes behind champion Spain.
I think I had such an advantage having played so Pasatiempo so much, said Cockerill of the Alister Mackenzie design. I was commanding on the greens. I was so confident on where to hit the ball and managed myself off the course really well. My opponents would always get frustrated. I beat them on the greens for the most part. And Pasatiempo was perfect for my game. It was a tight, shorter golf course. I wasn’t a particularly long player, but accurate. It was really ideal.
Cockerill, who had completed her college eligibility in the spring, used the ensuing year to finish up her degree at UCLA. She also delayed turning pro to have an opportunity to defend her Women’s Amateur title.
But she never felt any pressure in the days leading up to the 1987 event. It was a confident Cockerill who showed up to defend on the classic Donald Ross layout.
I felt like I had nothing to lose, said Cockerill. Everybody had to beat me. I felt like I had a 1- or 2-up advantage on the first tee. I had that kind of confidence.
Cockerill easily qualified for match play with a 36-hole total of 150 and had no problems with her first-round opponent, Michelle Michonowicz of Oakmont, Pa., 3 and 2. But in round two that afternoon, she was taken to the 18th hole by Brenda Corrie of the Dominican Republic before prevailing, 1 up.
On Thursday morning, Cockerill had another tough 1-up win against Michele Lyford of Redlands, Calif., to set up an afternoon quarterfinal encounter against longtime nemesis Carol Semple Thompson of Sewickley, Pa.
Cockerill had never defeated the veteran who won this championship in 1973 but remained in the amateur ranks despite all the temptations to turn professional. To prepare for the match, Cockerill went back to the house she was staying at, ate lunch and took a quick power nap.
Focused and ready, Cockerill played some of the best golf of her career, registering a 6-and-5 victory.
I was at least three or four under par (with concessions), said Cockerill. I think that was the best I played all week. She had gotten me every time before, so the longer you went with her in the match, the more she had a chance to win. That was huge. That was my toughest match. It was a huge goal in my career. It catapulted me to more confidence.
In the semifinals, Cockerill beat Nanci Bowen of Tifton, Ga., 3 and 1, to set up a 36-hole final match against Tracy Kerdyk of Miami, Fla., who had claimed the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links two months earlier.
Cockerill took a 2-up lead in the morning session before the skies opened up and suspended play for the day after 19 holes.
That was really tough, said Cockerill of the momentum she had built before the thunderstorm. I had an advantage. You had geared yourself for 36 holes and now I have to go through another hard-to-sleep night. It was really challenging. I had all this adrenaline.
And now it’s like, ‘Oh no, I have to go through all of this again tomorrow?’ I had to have a little sit-down with myself to put myself back in the [right] frame of mind.
Cockerill went to dinner that evening in Newport with UCLA coach Jackie Steinmann and a few other mutual friends. That did wonders to relax Cockerill for Sunday’s resumption of the final.
I came out and had a good match with Tracy the next day, said Cockerill.
Cockerill completed the two-year run with a 3-and-2 triumph.
Although people within the USGA, particularly Women’s Committee chairman Judy Bell, tried to convince Cockerill to remain an amateur through the 1988 Curtis Cup Match scheduled the following June in England, she decided it was time to turn pro.
It’s a decision, 24 years later, Cockerill somewhat regrets.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed amateur, she said. But it was very hard. I had already stayed amateur another year to defend my title and to finish school.
I didn’t have the money to support an amateur career like that. It was a very difficult decision. I missed not playing on a Curtis Cup Team.
As a pro, Cockerill never won a LPGA Tour event, although she claimed a Futures Tour title in 1988, the Marsh Landing Classic. She eventually retired in 1997 and started working as a television golf analyst for the Golf Channel and NBC, which has kept her close to the game without having to deal with the rigors of the professional circuit. Cockerill hasn’t ruled out regaining her amateur status and, perhaps, raising a USGA trophy again.
Cockerill certainly knows the thrill of that accomplishment.
David Shefter is the USGA’s senior staff writer. E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.