(SANTA FE, N.M.) - The Tennessee trio of Riley Rennell, Jayna Choi and Ashley Gilliam combined to shoot 1-under-par 143 in the final round to win the 12th and final USGA Women’s State Team Championship on The Club at Las Campanas’ Sunrise Course, which played to a par of 72 and 6,267 yards on Thursday.
The leader board was in constant flux once play got underway, with Tennessee, Delaware, Florida, Alabama, New York and Indiana all moving into at least a tie for first place at some point. When the dust settled, Tennessee claimed the Judy Bell Trophy at 1-under 431. Delaware shot 3 under in Round 3 to finish one stroke behind Tennessee and one stroke ahead of third-place Florida. Alabama finished fourth at 3-over 435. New York, which led after the first two rounds, shot 7 over on Thursday to finish in a tie for fifth with Indiana.
It was a total team effort for Tennessee, one of three all-teenager trios in the championship – Delaware and Mississippi were the others. All three Tennessee players contributed at least one counting score. Rennell, 19, of Columbia, bailed the team out with a 4-under 68 in Round 1, 10 strokes better than her next-best teammate, but she posted a non-counting 77 in Round 2 before rebounding with a team-best 71 in the final round. Gilliam shot 72 on Thursday and Choi added a solid non-counting 74.
“This is a team event, and what was best about it was we all contributed,” said Rennell. “They kind of had a rough start and I just hung in there for them and I had a rough second day, and they came through for me.”
For Choi, 16, of Collierville, the finality of the event resonated.
“What’s really awesome is it’s the last championship for the State Team, so I think it’s a total blessing having them have your back,” she said.
Gilliam, 16, of Manchester, couldn’t get over the weight of the Judy Bell Trophy, both figuratively and literally.
“It was very heavy. I think I will be sore tomorrow,” she said. “I’m just glad I didn’t break it.”
The Women's State Team consists of three-player teams, with all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico eligible to field teams. This year, 47 states and the District of Columbia fielded teams, with North Dakota, Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Wyoming opting not to compete. The championship consisted of 18 holes of stroke play on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The best two scores for the team count toward the team score, with the third score acting as a tiebreaker. After 36 holes, the field was cut to the low 21 teams and ties, which resulted in 22 teams this year. Any individual whose team missed the cut but was within five strokes of the individual lead was eligible to continue to play for the individual medal, but that didn’t come into play this year.
The USGA's State Team championships began in 1995 as part of the Association's Centennial Celebration. They were conducted on a biennial basis until 2010, when the men and women began alternating years. After a two-year review process with state and regional golf associations, it was announced in March that the USGA would retire its State Team championships at the end of the 2017 season. The USGA annually conducts 13 national championships, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
“The USGA expresses its gratitude to all the champions and competitors of the USGA State Team Championships, as well as the host clubs and the hundreds of volunteers who contributed their time and efforts,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director, Championships and Governance, in March. “In our reviews and discussions, it became quite clear that the conditions of competition had evolved, and there were significant differences in the respective team selection processes. After considering the matter for more than a year, the review supported increased focus toward other areas of USGA competition, both present and future, including the continued enhancement of the local and sectional qualifying experience for players across all USGA championships.”
Two-time U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Julia Potter, 29, of Indianapolis, Ind., shot 6-under 210 to claim the individual medal. Potter, who won the Women’s Mid-Amateur in 2013 and 2016, shot 2-under 70 in all three rounds.
“It’s amazing. I’ve been lucky enough to be medalist twice in the [Women’s] Mid-Amateur, and it’s not easy,” said Potter. “It’s hard. It’s a grind to make it happen, and so it means a lot.”
The youngest team in the field with a combined age of 47, Delaware delivered by far the best performance in its history in the Women’s State Team. The same trio of Phoebe Brinker, Jennifer Cleary and Esther Park competed two years ago at Dalhousie Golf Club and missed the cut. Its best previous finish was 32nd in the inaugural championship in 1995.
Cleary, 16, of Wilmington, spearheaded Delaware’s rise up the leader board by making three birdies in the morning’s resumption of Round 2 to post a 5-under 67, tying Gilliam for the low round of the championship. Brinker, 15, of Wilmington, then shot 68 in Round 3 and finished two strokes behind Potter, good for second on the individual leader board.
“I played really solid golf all three days, so that felt good,” said Brinker. “Then with Jen shooting a 67 the second day, that definitely boosted us up the leader board. That felt good.”
Florida entered the final round one stroke off New York’s pace and counted an even-par 72 from four-time U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion Meghan Stasi, 39, of Oakland Park, and a 73 by Alexa Pano, 13, of Lake Worth, the youngest player in the field.
“This is such a tough format, especially on the last day,” said Stasi. “You have no idea how the other teams are doing, how your own team is doing. So, I just went out and tried to play my game. I had it going early, was 2 under but gave them back and finished even. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t good enough today.”
With Joy-Connelly posting a non-counting 76, Pano helped keep Florida in contention by finishing her round with three straight birdies. She also enjoyed spending time with her teammates.
“It is an honor to play in this championship, and especially to play with Meghan and Tara, who are so accomplished and so focused on the golf course,” said Pano. “They were really good to me. To be on the last team representing Florida is really awesome.”
This was the second USGA championship in New Mexico, joining the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at Santa Ana Golf Course in Santa Ana Pueblo. Only two competitors in this week’s field competed in the 1999 WAPL: Sue Billek Nyhus, of Utah, and Leslie Folsom, of Washington.