ELIZABETH — As the first group at the inaugural West Virginia High School Girls Invitational golf championship strode off the first tee box in pursuit of their opening tee shots, a quantum leap was taken for female athletics in the Mountain State.
Over the course of the day, 52 golfers from 31 schools traversed the 5,491-yard trek at Mingo Bottom Golf Course, bringing to fruition a longtime goal of several within the sport, including the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission’s Wayne Ryan.
The tournament was put together late, with a venue change necessitated after the original planned site, Woodridge Golf Club in Mineral Wells, was deemed unplayable. Two inches of rainfall drenched the area on Monday, making practice rounds impossible and creating pockets of standing water across the course on Tuesday. None of that mattered.
While Tuesday is the first step in what everyone hopes is many to come, eventually leading to girls golf being separated from boys altogether, for years females will follow in those opening soggy footsteps taken by winner Olivia Hart (Hurricane), Wheeling Park’s Dorothy Romanek, George Washington’s Emma Nicol and Parkersburg’s Nicole Lincicome.
Maybe from the outside, it’s tough to understand why an all-girls golf tournament is a big deal and why growing the sport matters at all.
First, call a college women’s golf coach sometime and discuss the difficulty of filling scholarships, especially with in-state and even American players. The hope is that by growing the sport among females, participation will increase, leading to more educational opportunities for high school girls.
Also, spots in the current coed state tournament can be tough to come by, especially for individual qualifiers where only two spots off non-qualifying teams are available per region.
Scott Davidson, the pro at Parkersburg Country Club, assisted with proceedings on Tuesday. His daughter Lauryn is a senior golfer at Division I Lipscomb and yet she never qualified for a state tournament.
It was certainly a big deal to Jefferson’s Kailey Keisler, who left her house at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday and traversed nearly 300 miles and close to five hours to be a part of history.
Though Tuesday’s event came with a trophy and an all-tournament team, it can’t be recognized by the SSAC as a state championship until the sport is split from coed, into separate sports. In order for that to happen, 32 teams of four must be fielded. Obviously, there’s a long way to go.
But ask any of the players competing on Tuesday and it becomes apparent that the event provided something new, something unique and something that female golfers around the state can claim as their own.
“That first hole, I was shaking, I don’t know why, I never get nervous,” Hart, the reigning Callaway Junior Tour female player of the year said of her opening tee shot. “But this was big and I knew it was big.”
Hart prevailed in a duel with Romanek down the stretch, providing high drama. But Romanek smiled brightly afterward despite a closing double-bogey to fall two shots short. She still won. So did every female high school golfer to come before or that will come after, and there was an overwhelming sense of that once the final shots were tallied.
“It’s really incredible,” Romanek said. “It was awesome for us to get 52 girls all together for this tournament. Getting all the girls together … it would be awesome to have girls teams across the state and grow it that way.”
“I was more nervous because I know this is important to everybody and it’s going to go down known forever,” said Nicol, who accidentally knocked the ball off the tee before her first shot.
While Hart and Romanek will graduate this spring, players like Nicol and Lincicome (both sophomores) will have a couple more cracks at it with expectations now in terms of what to expect.
Nicol has already begun to impact the next wave of female players, a wave that hopefully gets bigger thanks in part to Tuesday’s event.
“Just exposure to competitive golf, it’s a big deal,” Nicol said. “Over the summer and spring I volunteered to work with the First Tee and we had a lot of girls in there. They were always my favorite to work with because I was in the First Tee when I was younger so that’s a big deal to me. I want them to like it as much as I do and continue to play. It’s huge to have this and have everybody come out.”
As for Ryan and the rest of the SSAC, Tuesday’s event was a rousing success that exceeded expectations. He said the initial hope was for 30 golfers, with 52 far surpassing that.
And while he was the first to admit that there’s a long way to go, seeing everyone on the course after years of talking about it was a striking reality in the most positive of sorts.
“We’re extremely happy with the turnout and we just want more exposure and more opportunities and growth in the sport of girls golf,” Ryan said. “We think this is something that was very important. We were tired of talking about it and wanted to start that process and get something done.”
A final tip of the cap to the staff at Mingo Bottom is deserved for doing as much as possible with a golf course that was drenched by the remnants of Hurricane Florence on Monday.
Ryan said that next year a plan, location and date will be instituted much earlier in the season, with the likelihood that the tournament will be held at a different golf course.
But no matter where the event goes, the hope is that players continue to follow in those original footsteps that were pressed down in the soggy sod on Tuesday by 52 competitors who forever changed the direction of women’s athletics in West Virginia, whether they realize it now or not.