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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Golf fits girls to a tee

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"But I really wanted to have the social part and golf with my friends," said Darnise, 17. "It's a fun game. It's really relaxing."

Two years ago, after a meeting with several mothers of Perrysburg High School students, her mother, Jennifer Bembry, agreed to coach six girls on the school's new golf team. Last year she had 14 players, and this fall she plans to add a junior varsity team.

"It's incredible," said Coach Bembry, who took up the game as an adult and plays in the competitive Toledo Women's District Golf Association. "There's a lot of girls who are finding they don't want to play soccer or basketball."

All eyes will be on female golfers beginning tomorrow, when northwest Ohio kicks off a week of events at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic presented by Kroger at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.

Opportunities for girl golfers have expanded dramatically in the last decade. Fueling the trend are more college scholarships, fatter tournament purses, more televised women's golf, and increased playing options. Moreover, the golf industry has decided to build the ranks of female players. And two years ago, the LPGA started making players more accessible to fans, which resulted in increased attendance - averages of 50,000 or 60,000 people a week.

"It has all led to at least a little explosion in girl's golf," said renowned pro golfer Nancy Lopez, 47. "It's amazing to me how many young players are on tour now. When I was younger, money wasn't as big a deal and people would stay in school longer." In June, a record 16 teens played in the U.S. Women's Open, including 17-year-old Paula Creamer and 14-year-old powerhouse Michelle Wie. Last summer at 13, Wie was the youngest to play the Jamie Farr. From Paraguay, Julieta Granada, 17, is making waves. Aree Song, 18, will play in Sylvania this week.

And more girls are en route. Consider this: locally, 26 incoming freshmen at St. Ursula Academy are expected to try out for golf. Played in the fall, golf competes for athletes with girls' volleyball, soccer, cross country, and tennis.

Ms. Lopez, arguably the most popular player in women's golf history and an LPGA Hall of Famer, said girls are developing more quickly because they're getting more instruction and playing more competitive rounds.

Tomorrow, 16-year-old Elizabeth Slusher will tee off with an LPGA pro in one of the Farr's pro-am events. A junior at Whitmer High School who practices daily, she dreams of playing in the LPGA.

Abby Kalucki, 6, hits a fairway shot as Morgan Hall, 6, watches. The girls were playing during a junior clinic at Highland Meadows Golf Club. Abby Kalucki, 6, hits a fairway shot as Morgan Hall, 6, watches. The girls were playing during a junior clinic at Highland Meadows Golf Club.
ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge

And on Aug. 8 she'll join the Jamie Farr winner at the 18th hole, where she'll be presented with a $1,000 scholarship for her first-place showing in a two-day tournament sponsored by the Girl Scouts of Maumee Valley Council in July. Her score for 36 holes at Detwiler Golf Course: 156.

Golfing has become cool for girls, said Claire Batista, golf pro at the Legacy by Arthur Hills in Ottawa Lake, Mich. Cool it was not when she took it up at 9 and later won a spot on the boys' team, her only option for high school play. 'It was like, 'why do you do that?'"

She attended Bowling Green State University in the early 1980s on a golf scholarship, and in 1993 she started the women's golf program at the University of Toledo.

"I work with a lot of high school girls and they're just so much better than even five years ago," said Ms. Batista. "I also get a lot of women in their 30s who are learning the game for business."

She understands exactly what fathers mean when they talk about golf being a game they can play with their kids for a lifetime. She takes golfing vacations with her father, who taught her the game 30 years ago.

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Entering his fifth season as coach at St. Ursula Academy, Jim McGowan continues building the team, which has made it to state tournaments in six of the last seven years, he said. He's expecting a new challenge this year: cutting would-be players from the team.

"It's a wonderful sport for girls," said Mr. McGowan, whose daughter, Mallory McGowan, was a ninth-grade golfer when he became coach.

Girls play a little differently than boys, and are more willing to practice their short game. Some pros say girls learn better with other girls, and from women coaches.

"Girls will work on the stuff that counts - getting the ball in the hole. Girls don't have as much ego. They understand that the true barometer in golf is your score when you're done, not how far you hit it."

In a few weeks, Dana Presnell, 14, will be among the dozens of freshmen trying to win a spot on SUA's team.

"My dad played and asked if I wanted to. At first I didn't know if I wanted to, but then I really got into it," said Dana. She's on the course at least once a week with a parent or a teenage friend. She likes Annika Sorenstam, the 33-year-old Swede who's won more than $13 million on the LPGA Tour. Sorenstam captured the hearts of fans last year when she competed on the men's PGA tour in Texas, the first woman to do so since 1945. She did not make the cut.

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Girls have played junior golf for decades, but until recently, many quit at 12 or 13 because there were few high school opportunities, said Nick Myers, golf pro at Highland Meadows.

For some girls, golf is a family activity. Mandy Levison, 11, was welcomed to the links by her grandmother, who bought her clubs and plays nine holes with her on Friday mornings.

"Boys and girls can be pretty much equal in this sport," said Mandy.

Kayla Kimmet, 13, likes the weekly games she plays with her parents and siblings. "It's mostly a joke-around time," she said. "I like the idea of hitting something."

The smallest golfers, unencumbered by scores and distances, are happy to climb on the golf cart and ride down the fairway. But they're absorbing the basics.

Nicole Sullinger, 6, has golfed for three years. "When I grow up, I want to be in a golf tournament because my mom was in one when she was 14."

The best part of the game? "I can hit the ball up in the air."

Blade sports writer Dave Hackenberg contributed to this article.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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