Catching a Flier: Bourdage Soaring at SentryWorld July 24, 2019 | Stevens Point, Wis. By David Shefter, USGA

Jillian Bourdage thus far has chosen the right flight path in this week's U.S. Girls' Junior at SentryWorld. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

U.S. Girls' Junior Home

Each day Jillian Bourdage volunteered with The First Tee of Broward (Fla.) County at Pompano Beach Golf Course, she would notice the aircraft at the adjacent Pompano Beach Airpark. Then 15 years of age, Bourdage had developed an interest in aerospace engineering until she realized the amount of mathematics required for such a career.

But seeing all the planes flying in and out of the small airport got Bourdage thinking: Why build the planes when you can fly them.

A hobby was hatched. She joined The Ninety-Nines, Inc., the International Organization of Women Pilots, even before she was age-eligible – one must be 16 – and started down the path toward gaining a pilot’s license. Bourdage is 20 hours through the 60-hour process and soon will be doing her first solo flight.

But this week in her first appearance in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, the 17-year-old from Tamarac, Fla., is forging a different flightpath at SentryWorld. She successfully navigated two rounds of stroke play to earn the No. 5 match-play seed, and then defeated Savannah Hylton in Wednesday’s Round of 64, 2 and 1, to set up a Round-of-32 encounter with Isabella Fierro, of Mexico, Thursday morning.

“I love golf and I love flying,” said Bourdage.

In the coming years, Bourdage plans to combine both of her passions. Next fall, she will enroll at The Ohio State University, where she’ll not only play on the women’s golf team but is also hoping to be accepted into the school’s Center for Aviation Studies. She plans to apply to the program in August when enrollment begins.

Someday, Jillian Bourdage might be commercially flying competitors to locations hosting the U.S. Girls' Junior. (Jillian Bourdage) 

Bourdage has already begun taking the necessary steps to get accepted. By September 2020, she hopes to have her pilot’s license. She’ll also have 53 college credits, thanks to a special program at Broward College. Although Bourdage is still in high school, she is a full-time student at Broward, taking 30 credits over the next two semesters. She already has banked 22 college credits that also apply to her high school diploma.

“My school district pays for all of the classes,” she said. “It’s for kids who want to get a jumpstart on college.”

Bourdage spent her first couple of years at American Heritage, a private high school in Plantation, Fla., where she won a state 2A golf title as a sophomore. Now she is enrolled in the Broward Virtual School, which enables her to take college-level classes that fulfill Florida’s high school graduation requirements. Bourdage insists this doesn’t take a toll on her personal life – she still plans to attend prom next spring and maintains her high school friendships – while at the same time accelerates the academic process. It’s just that she takes classes with 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds instead of adolescent teens.

“I like it a lot more, honestly,” she said of the educational arrangement. “Everyone is paying for the classes. They are really focused, so it’s different than a high school setting. It’s giving me experience with how to handle college classes in advance before I go to Ohio State. I will know how to balance my schedule.”

That schedule not only includes time in the classroom and golf course, but also in the air. Bourdage currently is training in single-engine Cessnas – the 152 and 172 – and she’s learning all sorts of maneuvers. Being in the air offers a sensation unlike anything else. It’s as thrilling as making a hole-in-one or winning a golf tournament.

Recently, she’s practiced stalling in mid-air with the instructor purposely pulling the plug on the engine and trying to recover before the aircraft plummets to the earth. These maneuvers, Bourdage says, make her mother cringe. But being with an experienced teacher, Bourdage is becoming more and more comfortable in the cockpit.

Jillian Bourdage (right) is 40 hours away from earning her pilot's license. (Jillian Bourdage)

Soaring over the earth at 3,000 feet is exhilarating, offering a control not found when driving – either a car or a golf ball.

“It’s so amazing to see the world from a whole new perspective,” said Bourdage. “It’s one thing to drive a car, but when you have a plane in your own control and you are 3,000 feet in the air, you have to be constantly on top of what you are doing.”

Bourdage still is at a place where she doesn’t know if she’ll pursue flying as a career or hobby. Four years at Ohio State likely will determine her career path. Success on the golf course could lead to a successful career on the LPGA Tour. She also might try the commercial pilot path and someday be flying a 777 or 787.

“The biggest one they’ve got,” said Bourdage when asked her dream aircraft.

Recently, her golf game has also taken off. This past spring, Bourdage and partner Casey Weidenfeld advanced to the championship match of the 5th U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla. That run, which ended in a loss to incoming Duke freshman Erica Shepherd and Megan Furtney, provided a confidence boost for the rest of the summer. Bourdage qualified for her first Girls’ Junior and now finds herself five victories away from a USGA championship and a berth in next year’s U.S. Women’s Open.

There’s been plenty of support this week from family and friends. Bourdage’s mom is from Wisconsin and her father from the Chicago area. Aunts, uncles and cousins have made the drive north to provide support. It’s one reason why she chose to leave sunny Florida and commit to Ohio State.

“To be honest, Florida is a little too hot for me,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to get out of Florida.”

Someday she could be making getaways in her own plane. Arnold Palmer, before his passing, was a licensed pilot, and current PGA Tour player Phil Mickelson also flies his own plane. Bourdage could be a pioneer. There are currently very few female pilots, either recreational or commercial, and even less who also are successful golfers.

“I don’t think girls are encouraged to go down that avenue,” she said. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a flight attendant. I never really thought I could be the pilot.”

It’s a course that Bourdage wouldn’t mind following.

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