For eight months, Odette Clemente has worked to make herself an accomplished golfer. The 21-year-old USC student has taken lessons, spent countless hours on the driving range and played dozens of practice rounds — but until last week, she had not faced the ultimate test.
That changed on Friday, when Clemente — partnering with this reporter and accompanied by her instructor, Brad Frick — took on Benji Norton of WNKT-FM “The Game” and WLTX-TV sports director Bob Shields in a nine-hole challenge match at Hidden Valley Country Club near Gaston.
The match was the latest step in Frick’s yearlong project to turn Clemente, a golfing novice in December, into a single-digit handicap player, an odyssey chronicled by The State.
For Clemente, the biggest “challenge” wasn’t the golf, but the attention that went with it. Following her were a WLTX cameraman, The State’s photographer C. Aluka Berry, Hidden Valley professional Chris DeSanty (with his camera), and a small gallery of onlookers led by her parents, Danny and Odete Watson, who drove from their Greenville home to witness her competitive debut.
Nerves? Yeah, they were in play, she said.
“The first tee shot (on Hidden Valley’s par-5 10th hole), I was pretty tight,” Clemente said. “After that, I was pretty solid off the tee.”
Norton and Shields discovered just how “solid” her game was. Clemente and this reporter teamed to beat The Game’s duo, 2 and 1, with Clemente sinking a 4-foot par putt on the par-3 17th hole to wrap up the match.
“I was totally impressed with her swing,” Norton said afterward. “She’s so serious about it.
“I give her a lot of credit for taking us on, because she’s only been playing a short time. I think she’s going to be really, really good someday.”
The “challenge match” came about in June, when Norton called Frick after reading about the “Odette Project” and invited teacher and student to be guests on WNKT’s 6 a.m.-9 a.m. show.
“I had never been on radio, so I was a little nervous at first,” Clemente said. “But once we got there, it was fine.”
During the appearance, “Benji made an off-the-cuff comment to Brad and Odette about a challenge,” Shields, Norton’s co-host, said. “It sounded like a great idea, putting her story out there, and also a lot of fun.”
After “shooting e-mails back and forth” to work out details, Frick and Norton settled on Clemente’s partner and the date. Then Clemente went to work.
“We’ve been working with video to correct her backswing,” Frick said. “She had gotten where her takeaway was too inside and the club was getting ‘trapped’ behind her.”
Also in preparation, Clemente played practice rounds at Hidden Valley, shooting nine-hole rounds of 44 and 47, the latter — which included four pars and a birdie — the day before the match.
Though her nerves showed in a poor opening drive, Clemente recovered for a par to take a 1-up lead. But Shields and Norton used Norton’s pars at the 11th and 12th holes to take the lead, before Clemente’s team rallied to even the score at No. 13.
The match turned at the par-4 15th. All four players were short of the green, but Clemente chipped to 4 feet and saved par. When Norton and Shields both bogeyed, Clemente’s team again went 1-up.
That set the stage for No. 17, where her 95-yard tee shot and two putts from 40 feet clinched the win. The winning putt spun halfway around the cup before dropping.
Afterward, she received congratulatory hugs from her parents and praise from her coach. Clemente won three of her team’s four holes and halved another, all with pars.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” Frick said. “She had a lot of pressure on her, but Odette told me she had her ‘game face’ on.”
Friday, she wore it well.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304