Where the Girls Are


I've been to about 40 USGA Championships, mainly U.S. Opens, some Women's Opens, a few Senior Opens and a couple of U.S. Amateurs. I don't think I've ever had an experience quite like this past week in New Jersey.
I covered an event with little media attention, no big names and an open admission to the public. All I got to see was a group of young girls playing golf with smiles, excitement, talent and grace. They played the game as it should be played. Don't get me wrong, the competition was fierce and there were some great shots each day. But it was the personalities that I will remember most about the 54th U.S. Girls Junior Championship.
I began the week attempting to interview players just off the course after victories in early-round matches. I got more smiles than syllables for most of the answers as these shy young golfers clearly preferred grinding out pars and birdies to grinding out sound bites. What did I expect from a 16-year-old with a TV camera in her face and a stranger older than her father asking random questions? Still, the mood was upbeat and the camaraderie between the girls was evident, when the cameras weren't rolling.
Adolescence was in full bloom as well. Parents hugged on their kids while the youngsters pulled away or wiped kisses from their faces. You can't be uncool at a national championship. Caddies desperately tried to get the attention of some of the older competitors (the 17-year-olds) while host families kept a watchful eye. It was the innocent trappings of youth which we all lose inevitably as we age. To see it at a USGA event was refreshing and reminded me of my early days playing the game.
The medallist was a 14-year-old Korean girl named In-Bee Park who drove the par-4 second hole repeatedly during the week. She was a bit of a mystery. Her coach/interpreter often spent two minutes or more answering questions after only a few words spoken by In-Bee. Either that's one condensed language or there was a little extrapolation going on.
At one point in my interview she spoke in English talking about her favorite golfer, Annika Sorenstam. Her voice was as small as her driver was large and she then continued to speak to me in English. A sweet, shy girl who seemed to be coming out of her shell, struggling for words that she could make her own. And isn't that what growing up is all about, anyway?
At one point I was interviewing another young competitor and her remarkable demeanor amazed me. I hadn't recognized her from a feature on Golf Central, but was familiar with her story. Mallory Code's bright beaming smile, pleasant tone of voice and enthusiastic responses belied her medical struggles. She's an asthmatic and a diabetic who receives insulin shots dispensed automatically from a unit she wears on her belt.
She seemed to have a mature inner strength combined with all the wonders of a growing young woman. Her game was mature as well, Mallory making it all the way to the quarterfinals, and she handled defeat graciously. Mallory also has cystic fibrosis, whose insidious symptoms are far more cumbersome than an insulin pack and whose prognosis is ominous to say the least. She is one of those youngsters you pull for in life. I'll be pulling extra hard for Mallory.
If Mallory's most significant struggles lie ahead, Jenny Tangtiphaiboontana's are hopefully behind her. Back in November she was riding in a car with her parents. The car flipped on the freeway and both of her parents were killed. Jenny escaped with minor injuries, but the psychological and emotional scars are unimaginable to me.
She's a smiling young California girl who carries four more letters in here name than clubs in her bag. Her only sibling is her brother Tommy, who accompanied her every step of the way with words of encouragement at every turn. In his eyes you could see hope, anxiety and love for his little sister. An accomplished player himself, Tommy was asked who could beat whom. His careful response - 'The way she's playing this week, I couldn't beat her.'
Jenny's caddie was a local favorite named Brian Fitzpatrick. All week long four of Brian's friends wore caddie bibs, each with a homemade letter on the front and the back, in masking tape. When arranged properly they spelled out 'Fitz'. When they turned around it spelled out 'Boon'. Watching these boys adopt Jenny and embrace her after her loss in the final match was a sight I can't describe and whose recollection makes me proud to be affiliated with this sport.