The Thurmanator

As a former all-state point guard, Annie Thurman knows the importance of an assist. In that position, teamwork and astute decision-making are essential; scoring generally is secondary. That’s not the case in golf, where scoring is the measuring stick. Still, the outcome of the 26th U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship might have been determined by a choice Thurman made well before the first ball was struck on the Meadows Course at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort.

Thurman planned to have her mother caddie  until a more prudent option arose. When Thurman discovered that Lana Sitterud, a longtime friend and ex-teammate on the Lone Peak High girls’ basketball team, was willing to make the nine-hour trip from their hometown of Highland, Utah, an old partnership was rekindled.

In high school, Thurman would feed passes to the 5-foot-10 Sitterud, who now plays at the University of Utah. Together they helped their team to a second-place finish in the state 4A tournament as seniors. Now, the roles would be reversed: Sitterud would dole out the assists.

“It took a lot of pressure off me,” said the 19-year-old Thurman. “In the past I would get a little frustrated when things went wrong. [With Sitterud] I didn’t get uptight.”

In six matches, Thurman led or was all square for all but three holes. And in the first 36-hole final in WAPL history, the Oklahoma State University sophomore went into fast-break mode, jumping out to a 5-up lead in the morning en route to a 6-and-5 win over Hwanhee Lee.

“We were constantly joking out there,” said Thurman.”Like on 17 [in the semifinals] when I hit my 5-wood fat. We just laughed it off.

“Just to say you’ve won a USGA event is huge,” added the first female from Utah to capture a USGA title. (Utahans George Von Elm and D. Scott Hailes were male champions.) “To see all those names on the trophy, and to know that your name is going to always be there, is special.”

Thurman just hopes the engravers get the spelling right. The bib issued to Sitterud for Round 3 read “THUMAN.” After winning both matches that day, though, a superstitious Thurman told organizers to not correct it.

Thurman controlled the tempo from her first match – like a point guard should. Call it her version of the four corners offense: fairways and greens, fairways and greens. Boring? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely. Her opponents probably thought they were competing against Iron Byron, the mechanical golfer the USGA uses to test balls. Just grind out par after par and wait for the opposition to make a mistake.

“She hits a lot of fairways and greens, and that is really important out here, especially with this rough,” said Yvonne Choe, a 19-year-old sophomore from UCLA and Thurman’s 2-and-1 semifinal victim.

In the final against Lee, another 19-year-old sophomore, from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Thurman hit 19 of 24 fairways. When she missed a green – she did so 13 times in 31 holes – she used the putter for her next shot all but three times. “My lag putting was the difference,” she said. “My putting has been a shaky all year; this week, it was consistent.”

Thurman’s resume showed no indication of an impending breakout week. In her last three collegiate starts – the Big 12 championships, NCAA regional and NCAA finals – she placed 13th, 39th and 75th, respectively. In fact, she had only one top-10 all year (eighth at Auburn Derby). It was also her first WAPL. In 2001, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the championship of that Utah 4A basketball tournament and was unable to enter the WAPL.

“I think this gives me more confidence to work harder,” said Thurman. “You are not going to win any more tournaments by what you’ve done in the past.”

Perhaps no contestant had a weirder  week than Lee. One of the few competitors familiar with the Meadows Course – the Mountain West Conference finals were held there in April – Lee arrived in Sunriver with physical and mental ailments. She endured the 15-hour drive from Long Beach still nursing an injured wrist sustained at the conference finals. Her back and shoulder were also sore.

Lee, who came to the U.S. when she was nine months old and has become a citizen, received a needed reprieve when her second-round opponent, Elena Kurokawa, withdrew so she could catch a plane to New Jersey to play in a  qualifier for an LPGA event. Lee used the time to hit balls and ice her back and shoulder.

Two days later, she faced the youngest semifinalist in USGA history, 12-year-old phenom Michelle Wie. Lee had not gotten much sleep the night before the match because her dad had the television tuned to South Korea’s World Cup match with Spain (South Korea won on penalty kicks).

“Do you want me to win or do you want me to lose?” Lee asked him, but added, “Don’t worry, I can do it.” Thanks to a clutch 30-foot birdie putt at the 11th hole, a weary Lee did indeed do it, knocking out the wunderkind, 3 and 2.

“I learned a lot about game management,” said Wie, who earned respect with her gritty performance and monster drives. “How to hit a shot, when to hit a shot. She was shorter [off the tee] than I was. I always had a wedge in my hand. But when her long putts started rolling in – wow.”

Thinking that she might not make it past the quarterfinals, Lee and her dad checked out of their motel Friday  morning. After she won, they discovered the motel they had been at had no vacancies; the Lees had to drive to Redmond, 45 minutes north of Sunriver, to find a room. After beating Wie Saturday, they managed to get the last room at their original motel in Bend, 25 minutes from Sunriver.

But the long week had taken its toll on Lee. In the final, she took 32 putts in the first 18, including her first three-putt of the championship (14th hole). A birdie at the 368-yard  18th provided some momentum for the afternoon round. Lee closed to 4 down after Thurman made a triple bogey at the 356-yard 23rd hole and seemed to have a chance at the 24th when Thurman missed the fairway and had to punch the ball out of thick rough. But Thurman’s wedge shot landed eight feet below the hole and she converted the par putt, while Lee three-putted from 35 feet to lose the hole.

“It’s like someone else’s body got into my body,” said Lee. “When I got to the first tee, my swing disappeared. My putting and short game was terrible. From now on I’ve got to be strong and confident.”

Nobody could question Thurman’s strength or endurance. Soon after the awards ceremony, the Thurman family – her dad drove up Friday night – headed to Meridian, Idaho, where Annie caddied for a friend, Natalie Stone, in a U.S. Girls’ Junior qualifier. Unfortunately, Thurman’s success didn’t rub off on Stone, who failed to qualify.

Heck, not every assist is a perfect pass.