Twenty-year-old Gianna Misenhelter will tell you she has been playing golf since the age of 3. She will also tell you she did not learn how to play golf until a year ago.
Last year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon was Misenhelter’s coming-of-age story. Not only did she advance to match play for the first time in her sixth USGA national championship but her creativity with shot-making blossomed.
"Those courses were so difficult," said Misenhelter, of Old Macdonald and Bandon Trails, the two venues utilized for the 2011 WAPL. "They required so many different shots, like how to keep the ball low. But a lot of shots I have pulled off in USGA and college events since then, I learned how to hit over there.
"And then I drew [former UCLA All-American and 2010 USA Curtis Cup member] Stephanie Kono in the first round. She’s a great player, with a great résumé and now she’s out on tour. But I was dormie after the 16th, but stayed in the match and took her to the 18th before losing. It was just a great experience."
On Tuesday morning, Misenhelter shot a second-round 5-over 77 in stroke-play qualifying at Neshanic Valley Golf Course. But the 3-over-par total of 147 would advance the Overland Park, Kan., resident into match play for a second consecutive year.
With a pleasant and forthright demeanor the rising junior at Kansas State University says her game continues to improve. She also admits that her biggest obstacle right now is not her swing, but her head. Misenhelter struggles with confidence.
"I played a solid, smooth round [on Monday]," Misenhelter said of the 2-under 70. "Then today I struggled. I struggled with my putting and my confidence. I’m getting older and while it’s all still a learning experience, I am ready for things to happen.
"Honestly, yesterday I didn’t have any expectations. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I know that I am a good player. I know I can play this game. But last night it was as if I started putting pressure on myself and then I come out and struggle today. I don’t know how it happens."
Misenhelter, who led the Wildcats in 2011-12 with a scoring average of 75.29 and four top-10 finishes in 11 starts, struggled mentally throughout the spring portion of the season as well. Instead of resorting to a sports psychologist, Misenhelter turned to mom, Giovanna, to help her through the rough patches.
Advancing to match play for a second successive year just further validates Misenhelter’s potential and may provide an extra dose of confidence. Then again, she could always look inward to see the impact she is making on girls who look to her for guidance and advice.
Misenhelter grew up in the Kansas City, Mo., area, having learned the game from her uncle, Terry, and father, Ken. She played every type of tournament imaginable, including The First Tee’s junior series events.
Over the years Misenhelter has remained involved with her local First Tee chapter, and was even selected to play in the Champions Tour’s Wal-Mart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach with idol Tom Watson in 2009.
"I think they tried to pair you up with someone from your area, but I put the bug in someone’s ear that I would like to play with Tom," said Misenhelter.
Since high school, Misenhelter has served as a mentor to future players, including 11-year-old McKenna Rice, 11, whom Misenhelter has known for about a year.
"I think she’s going to make it," Misenhelter said. "I think she is going to be a good golfer. She will come out to events when I’m playing locally and when I’m home I will go and take her out to lunch and we’ll talk about golf and things."
But that’s the joy of it all. You teach a kid how to hit a new shot and then when they succeed in hitting it, you see the smile on their face. Who wouldn’t gain joy from that?
Only a hardened soul.
Misenhelter, a public relations major, admits golf runs through her veins, and she reflects on what life might look like without the game.
"I’ve been doing this my whole life," said Misenhelter. "I played other sports … growing up, but this is who I am. I sometimes wonder if I was in a sorority back at college, doing something other than golf, who would I be?"
Misenhelter is not, though. She is a golfer, a very good golfer. Now if she can only get that through her mind on a consistent basis, who knows just how good she can be.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA championship websites.