Return for a moment to July, 2010, and the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, N.C. Two teenagers are engaged in a 36-hole duel for the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, battling each other and the oppressive heat and humidity.
The winner that day, then 17, would later capture the individual title in the NCAA Women’s Championship in her third year of college at the West Coast outpost of USC – Southern California.
The runner-up six years ago, then 15, strives to do the same – win the individual title in the NCAA Women’s Championship – in her third year of college at the Eastern version of USC – South Carolina.
Doris Chen, the junior winner in 2010, has moved on to the pros. Katelyn Dambaugh, second at Pinehurst, begins her NCAA championship quest Friday in Eugene, Ore. Don’t bet against her; she’s playing the best golf of her life.
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“I just want to play golf, Katelyn golf – relax and have fun,” she said in looking toward the national tournament. “The results will take care of themselves.”
Yes, and Dambaugh’s results have been spectacular in her junior season at Carolina. She has eight top-10 finishes in 10 tournaments, including one win, four seconds and a third. She comes into the national tournament following her first career victory in the NCAA Regional and her last three tournaments might resemble a hole-by-hole scorecard in miniature golf – 2, 2, 1.
“Incredible,” USC coach Kalen Anderson said in describing her All-American’s season. “She’s long, athletic, mentally tough and not afraid to go low.”
The sum is the best single season scoring average, 71.6, by almost a full stroke and USC’s best career average, 73.01, by more than a stroke – numbers that have her No. 2 in the Golfstat rankings of college players, No 12 in the women’s World Amateur Golf Rankings and one of four finalists for the college player of the year award.
Just wait, Anderson said. The best is yet to come.
‘Play Katelyn golf ’
High-level performances and Katelyn Dambaugh have been synonymous for, well, ... a very long time. She grew up in Goose Creek, started golf with her parents at Crowfield Plantation and racked up a myriad of honors in all sports at Pinewood Prep.
“Pretty decent,” she said of her basketball and softball performances, “but I decided that golf would take me further. Besides,” she added and laughed, “I hate running, and there’s a lot of running in basketball and softball.”
She chose wisely. Her junior golf achievements include a 64 in the Beth Daniel Junior Azalea at the Country Club of Charleston and a bundle of championship trophies. She stepped up in class successfully, finishing second in the CGA’s Carolinas Women’s Amateur and played in the U.S. Amateur before college.
Obviously, college golf coaches congregated at her tournaments. “A lot of eyes on her,” said Anderson, who won the recruiting battle.
“We clicked,” Dambaugh said of her decision to choose USC. “I wanted to be close to home, and I just felt comfortable with (Anderson). I knew she would be there to look after my best interests.”
At Carolina, she has sparkled in the classroom and on the golf course. She earned all-SEC second-team honors in her first two seasons and moved to the first team this year. She received some All-America notice last year and is expected to be a first-team selection this year. Meanwhile, she is a fixture on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Down the road – “after I graduate,” she said – professional golf awaits. But her focus now centers on the NCAA Championship, and her credentials take a backseat to no one.
“I’ll do what I’ve been doing,” she said. “Play Katelyn golf and see what happens.”
Lefty only in golf
Ask Puggy Blackmon, associate head coach for the women’s team, about the longest hitter on the team. He smiles and nods toward the left-handed swinger at the end of the driving range. Look closely and see why: 275 yards or more and down the middle.
“That’s the strength of my game,” said Dambaugh, who, like her golf idol Phil Mickelson, does everything right-handed except swing a golf club and a softball bat.
Her dedicated work on her wedge game and taking over team leadership moved her game to a higher level, Anderson said. “And she’s so competitive,” the coach said.”She wants to excel.”
Dambaugh reflected on that U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship six years ago and remembered the excitement of racing through the match play bracket to the final. None of her pre-final matches reached the 18th hole, and she closed out her semifinal opponent 7 and 6.
“But I was 15,” she said of her first USGA championship. “I had no idea.”
She does now. She works with Greg Boyette, pro at Bulls Bay Golf Club near Charleston, and his message – you can do special things in golf if you stick to it – rings true. Thus, the emphasis on her short game and mental aspects of the game that led to positive results.
Searching her memory for a favorite Dambaugh moment leaves Anderson with a bunch of options. Finally, the coach decides on a recent series of holes in the SEC Championship.
“I’ll spend time walking with her, and the number of birdies she makes is phenomenal,” Anderson said. “In the SEC tournament, she made five birdies on the back nine alone. That’s simply amazing. And if she gets her putter going, look out.
“She’s obviously very talented, and she has matured as a person and a player. She’s just a great kid, a great person, very balanced. She’s playing so well right now.”
A great player playing great? The timing is ideal.
NCAA women’s golf tournament
Where: Eugene, Ore.
Format: 72-hole stroke play followed by three rounds of match play
USC Lineup: Sarah Schmelzel, Katelyn Dambaugh, Ainhoa Olarra, Marion Veysseyre, Isidora Nilsson
The Field: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, BYU, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Furman, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA, Southern Cal, Virginia, Washington