Six weeks ago, Alice Hodge and her Florida State teammates were doing cartwheels on the lawn of the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale, Arizona. It felt that good to be in the desert for the NCAA Women’s Championship.
“We were just running around the hotel like a bunch of kids,” Hodge said. “We just had such a great time. I just really enjoyed being there with my team.”
The Seminoles had won the NCAA Louisville Regional two weeks earlier as underdogs. They were given a poster to hold that day proclaiming them regional champs and Hodge & Co. flew it home with its own seat on the plane.
“It caused a scene in the airport,” she said.
It’s good to be a college golfer.
Day-to-day, Hodge played and competed more as a freshman at Florida State than she has at any point before in her golf career. If there’s one thing that gives her a leg up at the U.S. Girls’ Junior this week at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, it’s that.
Championship stipulations allow for players to compete in the Girls’ Junior, arguably the premier junior girls event of the summer, provided they have not reached their 19th birthday on or before July 17. College experience doesn’t figure in.
Amid the 156-player field teeing it up this week are eight other players like Hodge who have a season of college golf under their belt. And why not? Among the perks for the winner this week is a U.S. Women’s Open berth in 2022.
U.S. Girls’ Junior: Tee times and players to watch
“I’m young for my grade so I grew up playing junior golf with a lot of these girls despite being a grade older than them so I’m still pretty friendly with the field, I still feel like I know a good chunk of the girls,” she said.
Interestingly, Hodge’s older sister Caroline, who also attended Florida State, did the same thing in 2019, when there were also nine collegians in the Girls’ Junior field.
Florida State ended the spring by narrowly missing the match-play bracket at the NCAA Women’s Championship and landed a season-ending position of 11th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Hodge teed it up eight times (in other words, in every tournament – Florida State, which competes in the ACC, wasn’t allowed to compete in the fall because of COVID-19). A one-on-one followed with her coaches after each event. Consistency was a theme.
“They would just say you’re so consistent, you’re reliable and that’s really helped a lot of the other girls relax,” Hodge remembered. “I think my consistency is definitely an advantage just because I might not go low a lot of the time but I’m pretty steady.”
Hodge grew up in Larchmont, New York, not far from famed courses like Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge and Westchester, where the U.S. Women’s Amateur will be played later this month (Hodge wasn’t able to get through qualifying for that event). In high school, sometimes she’d play high school matches on Winged Foot’s front nine.
Having played in the 2017 Girls’ Junior, Hodge knows that when you have the opportunity to play a USGA event, you take it – especially if it’s a sort of second chance.
“Especially because I didn’t get to play last year,” Hodge said, referencing this event’s cancellation because of COVID-19, “I didn’t get to have that last junior golf senior season that I was looking forward to.”
Caroline Hwang, who wrapped up her freshman season at Pepperdine in May after winning the individual title at the West Coast Conference, was in the same boat. But the 18-year-old thinks that given her eligibility, she would have tried to qualify for this year’s event regardless. This week is a chance to see all her friends from junior golf one more time – it’s a reunion week in addition to a tough tournament.
“This is like one of the biggest junior events,” she said, “and I’m not 19 yet so I feel like this is my last chance to prove myself at this stage before I completely transition out of junior golf.”
Hwang grew up in Orlando, Florida, attending Olympia High School before switching to virtual school halfway through her sophomore year to focus more on golf. Her family moved cross-country last year when Hwang started at Pepperdine. Her trainer and coaches were already in the Los Angeles area, so it made sense to relocate.
Regardless, a change of scenery helped Hwang grow up in a way that might benefit her game this week. As a freshman, she played every event for Pepperdine and was a leading scorer. Freshman teammate Lion Higo is also in the Girls’ Junior field.
“College competition is a little bit different and you have to – I feel like I matured a little bit too from a few years ago,” she said.
For Kentucky’s Laney Frye, this would be a win-win week no matter where she decided to tee it up. After qualifying into the Girls’ Junior, Frye’s choices were a USGA championship or the North & South Women’s Amateur.
“My swing coach always tells me there’s nothing like a USGA event,” she said.
Frye, from Lexington, Kentucky, gushes about her first year of college golf. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a more SEC-concentrated schedule than usual. That began in October with the Blessings Intercollegiate. It was a televised co-ed championship on a former national championship venue and Frye was blown away. She finished T6.
Annabelle Pancake hugs Laney Frye, right, after Frye won the girls’ division of the inaugural Dye National Junior Invitational at Crooked Stick Golf Club. (Photo by Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
“Two years ago (the U.S. Girls’ Junior) was probably the biggest tournament I’d played at the time,” she said. “Was just kind of star-struck. Even though it was the summer after my junior year, I felt like I belonged but not quite to the same extent that I do now after playing in all SEC fields for a year.
“The depth of the tournaments that I’ve been playing in and the leaders at them, they really know how to play. I’ve just been exposed to that year-round, thanks to college.”
Kentucky’s year ended with a trip to the NCAA Women’s Championship. Frye & Co. became the first Wildcat team to advance to play for a national title since 1992.
“That was big-time,” she said. “I think it was 29 years so that was a good amount of time before I was even born since we had been.”
Frye and Kentucky teammate Maria Villanueva qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball in April, but when they bowed out before match play, they picked up the bags for two more Wildcats, Jensen Castle and Marissa Wenzler. It was a nice match-play refresher for Frye, even if it wasn’t first-hand.
Frye won the Dye Junior Invitational last summer, what she called the highlight of her junior career, and has the same caddie on this bag this week as she did for that tournament at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Indiana. Harrison Lane is a family friend and recent graduate from Transylvania, where he played college golf.
One thing she never accomplished as a junior? Winning an AJGA event. Asked if a USGA title this week might make up for that, Frye had two words: “No doubt.”