FROM FLEDGLING TO FLOURISHING.
The fifth season of high school girls' golf gets under way today, so much bigger and better that it bears little resemblance to the fledgling years of this sport in the late 1990s.
Then, many schools had trouble fielding full teams - even with the reduced, play-five-to-score-four system that was in use to help jump-start the girls' programs. Top players preferred to play on boys' teams because of the better competition, and high scores routinely advanced many girls' golfers and teams to postseason competition.
Now, girls play six to score five, just as the boys do, and it is becoming easier to fill rosters once understaffed because so few girls had any experience - or even interest - in golf. Now, nearly every league has one or more top-flight programs - the Foothill League has four strong team-title contenders this season - and girls are entering high school prepared not only to compete for starting positions, but challenging to be team or league scoring leaders.
Current sophomores Danielle O'Neil of Quartz Hill, Faith De Guzman of Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks and Hillary Packard of Thousand Oaks all won individual league titles as freshmen. So did Burbank's Grace Woo, now the senior leader of a Bulldogs team that will challenge Valencia, Hart and defending champion Saugus for the team title in a Foothill League so deep in talent that all four of those teams have at least two players with scoring averages in the 70s, three of whom shoot in the low 70s.
Saugus senior Melanie De Leon, who won the state junior girls' championship this summer and was the 2003 Daily News Girls' Golfer of the Year, might be the best example of the increasing interest in girls' golf.
De Leon, a former softball player who won league MVP honors in her first full season of girls' golf, is one of a growing number of athletes golf is attracting from other sports. At Monroe of North Hills, Mary Oliver includes golf as one of her four sports. Burbank golfer Jenna Todd plays five sports.
As more and more girls attempt to give golf a try, the chances increase that more will find they have a knack for it. When Granada Hills won its first City Section girls' golf title in 2001 - its first year competing in the sport - Lucy Davies thought she'd give the sport a try the following year. She wound up No. 2 on the team in her first season, as a junior, then came within two strokes of winning the City individual championship as a senior and now has a golf scholarship to Cal State Northridge.
At her alma mater - where coach Steve Thompson can remember telling people just two years ago that, yes, Granada Hills really does have a golf team, the boom has extended beyond recognition for excellence in the City Section. This year's Highlanders, fielding four players with scoring averages in the 70s, compare favorably with the best teams in a region that has been dominated by Southern Section teams - which started playing girls' golf two years earlier than the City did.
Former softball player De Leon of Saugus also is headed for a college golf scholarship, having already attracted the interest of several schools, as has Burbank's Woo, who advanced to match play in this year's USGA Junior Girls and Women's Amateur championships.
More area girls could wind up following them as scholarship players in the future, judging from the growth girls' golf has enjoyed in its few years as an official high school program. And that growth might even speed up if the enormous professional and amateur successes of Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie make the same impact on young girls that Tiger Woods had on young boys when he stormed onto the PGA Tour eight years ago.
--Long drivers: Larry Olmstead, teaching professional at Desert Aire GC in Palmdale, has qualified for the Sept. 18 district championship of the ReMax World Long Drive Championships. Olmstead earned his berth with a drive of 355 yards in a qualifier at Rancho San Marcos. Two of his students, Bill Penturf and Michael Samson, also qualified for the district finals - Samson in the age 15-17 junior division with a drive of 352 at Rancho San Marcos.
--L.A. City Seniors: Registration closes Sept. 17 for the Los Angeles City men's and women's senior golf championships, both of which will be played Oct. 7-8 at Griffith Park, with the women's competition at Harding and the men's at Wilson. Entry fee is $85 for both championships, and minimum age is 50 as of Oct. 7. Information: Jim Gearhardt (818) 246-1520.
--Names in the game: Carla Loomis, who helped College of the Canyons win the 2001 community college state women's championship, is defending L.A. City senior women's champion. Steve Yavorsky has won the past two L.A. City senior men's titles. ... Pete Frey, whose organizational contributions have helped past L.A. City golf championships go smoothly at in the junior, men's, women's and both senior divisions, has been named L.A. City Golf Operations Supervisor.
ON THE GREEN