This week’s appearance in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship will be the first and last for Sierra Brooks.
Brooks, 17, competed in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, but never qualified for the Girls’ Junior until this year.
Last year, the Sorrento, Fla., native missed playing in the qualifier because she was representing the USA in Japan for the Toyota World Cup through the Junior PGA of America. In other years, she found herself in a deep and talented field of Florida juniors.
“You have to post a low round just to have a shot at getting in because those fields are always so tough,” said Brooks, a rising senior at Lake Mary Preparatory School, near Orlando, who enters this week at No. 11 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™.
“It’s amazing to finally be here,” added Brooks, who has verbally committed to play at Wake Forest University in the fall of 2016. “Obviously the best junior players are here, so I just want to have fun this week.”
Brooks got another taste of playing alongside the best players in the world two weeks ago as the first alternate in the recent 2015 U.S. Women’s Open. She made the trip to Lancaster, Pa., and practiced on-site, hoping for a chance to get into the championship if another player dropped out.
But that didn’t happen.
While Brooks was disappointed not to play in the Women’s Open, she took away some positives from that week.
“Being there and being able to practice next to the pros with all the people around watching was an amazing experience,” she said. “It was frustrating to see my friends out there playing and I didn’t get in, but it just gave me more motivation.”
Brooks paid particular attention to New Zealand wunderkind Lydia Ko, whom she says has always been one of her favorites “because she has an amazing swing and an amazing attitude.”
And Brooks also kept a close eye on Wake Forest alumna and LPGA veteran Laura Diaz, as well as World Golf Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb.
“It was amazing to be on the driving range with some real golf legends,” said Brooks.
Additionally, Brooks played a lot of junior and amateur golf with Canadian rookie professional Brooke Henderson, who tied for fifth at the Women’s Open. To watch her friend seamlessly step up to the next level and post a top-10 in the biggest event in women’s golf was special for the Floridian.
“We were always really competitive,” said Brooks. “Seeing her now as a pro is so cool.”
But unlike Henderson, Brooks has no interest in skipping the collegiate level to turn pro.
“College helps you grow up,” she said. “My goal is to play for Wake Forest, get my degree and then try to play professionally. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
That was also the path her father, Brent Brooks, took back in the late 1990s. He played college golf at the University of North Florida and competed professionally for three years on the Nike, Hooters and Golden Bear tours.
After Brent completed his “three-year plan” as a touring pro and started a family in Central Florida, it didn’t take long for his 6-year-old daughter to want to do more than just watch her father play golf.
“She got bored watching me and wanted to hit golf balls herself,” he said. “Later, she found other little girls to play with and began competing.”
The youngster cut her competitive teeth on the U.S. Kids’ Golf circuit from starting at age 8, before she began competing in American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournaments. By 2010, she had won the U.S. Kids’ World Championship.
And by age 9, she had beaten her father playing from her tees. Now, father and daughter compete from the same tees and the younger Brooks usually wins.
“I want her to follow her dream as far as she can take it and for as long as she enjoys it,” said Brent Brooks. “She’s steering the ship in her golf career.”
So far, the teen’s steering seems right on course.
She won the individual Florida State High School 1A Championship in fall 2014 and helped Lake Mary Prep win the team title. She also won the 2014 AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic and was a member of the winning USA Team in the 2014 Junior Ryder Cup, held in Scotland.
Earlier this year, she won the 2015 South Atlantic Women’s Amateur (the SALLY) and was named the 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Girls Golf Player of the Year by USA Today.
The honors and accolades have been special, Brooks said, but what has helped her move ahead most in her game has, ironically, been the “struggle summer of 2014.” Brooks explained that last summer, she sought too much instruction from two different coaches and became confused in her game.
“It was too much mechanics and too much thinking, and when I got to tournaments, I had no idea where my ball was going,” she said. “Finally, I decided to just go out and play.”
She also decided to go back to working with her father on her swing mechanics and to return to a less complicated approach to the game.
“As hard as it was last summer, I’m thankful for the bumps in the road,” she said. “Sometimes when you struggle, it teaches you a lot.”
And sometimes, when you finally get to compete in a championship that has eluded you for years, it feels that much sweeter to step on the first tee.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer, whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.