FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Gabriella Then's name will forever be etched on the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy as the winner of the 65th U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. The record book, newspaper clippings and Internet filings will also report that Then defeated Lakareber Abe, 2 and 1, in Saturday's 36-hole final at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.
But there was a second opponent Then was battling as her 5-up lead through 22 holes completely evaporated by the 32nd hole — herself.
Throughout the week, as Then worked her way through the match play bracket, she continually referenced the past year and how difficult it had been as she revamped her swing. Proof of improvement was not immediately evident in the results, so her attitude was not always positive.
"I feel like those months of preparation and building up the consistency in my game paid off this week," said Then, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. "I felt like the pressure was off and I was calming down my nerves when it mattered most."
Yet Then, playing in her 11th USGA championship, had only once advanced as far as the quarterfinals — the 2011 U.S. Girls' Junior — so everything past Friday morning's 1-up victory over Yueer Feng was new territory. Given this week marked the end of her junior amateur career, Then thirsted for this title.
Yes, she had won the Scott Robertson Memorial Tournament in mid-May and played in her third U.S. Women's Open last month, but she also had not earned enough points to make the U.S. Junior Solheim Cup team, which competes this fall. And that stung.
Each victory this week was further validation of her game coming together. And against Abe, 17, of Angleton, Texas, she was enjoying the ultimate confidence boost. Despite some erratic play off the tee, Then built a 4-up lead through the morning 18 holes.
"Gabby played really well, especially on the first 18," said Abe, who has committed to play for the University of Alabama in 2014. "I just kept telling myself to stay steady and I did. She just made a ton of birdies and it made it really hard in the first 18."
Twice Then extended her lead to 5 up in the afternoon — with a par at the 376-yard, par-4 first hole and again at the 192-yard, par-3 third hole, the match's 22nd.
And then …
"On the second 18, I just told myself to get in a rhythm, and I tried and I fought," said Abe, who won five of the next six holes to cut Then’s lead to 1 up.
At this point, doubt was attempting to overtake Then, as well.
"I was battling myself because I was thinking, 'Come on, I can do this. You can swing better than that. You know your target. Just hit it there and you'll be fine," she said. "So I stayed in a positive mindset whenever I hit those bad shots because I knew I was still in the hole no matter what."
With Saturday's win, Then closed out her junior amateur career on the best possible note. Then, who will begin her freshman year at the University of Southern California in less than a month, also earned a two-year exemption into the U.S. Women's Amateur and most likely put herself into the conversation for next year's U.S. Curtis Cup Team.
But what may prove more beneficial in the long run is the resiliency she showed as a memorable day in northeastern Indiana was turning as dark as the clouds that crept in late in the afternoon.
Then is not the emotional type. She is neither demonstrative in success nor down during failure. She is metronomic in her mood. And when Abe was making her charge, Then heard the cheers.
"On 11 [the match's 29th hole] she made like a 50-footer for birdie and the whole crowd, three quarters of the crowd was from Alabama. They were like, 'Come on, you can do it. Come back.' I'm like, 'No, not yet. I want to keep holding on to this 1-up lead.'
But Abe wasn’t done. She won the 32nd hole to square the match for the first time since the 12th hole – the largest comeback in the U.S. Girls’ Junior since 2003, and the largest ever in a 36-hole final. Yet it only inspired Then, who dug in even further.
"I was like, 'This is not the time to go 1 down. You don't have time for this," she said.
And she didn't.
Then gutted out a halve on the 477-yard, par-5 15th hole after taking a drop when her second shot hit the bridge and bounced into the creek. On the 317-yard, par-4 16th hole, Then won with bogey to regain a 1-up advantage and then closed out the match in style, with a birdie on the 356-yard, par-4 17th hole.
"Last three holes, got to make something happen," Then said. "Things just turned my way and I played consistent golf. Where I needed to hit the pressure shots and the draw, the fade, or the putt, I had them there and made them."
Here is something else you should know about Then. She played 117 holes in six matches over four days. She never trailed once and was only all square for 17 holes.
In the future, whether it's in nine days at the U.S. Women's Amateur or somewhere else down the line, Then can look back on this week and remember that while she defeated six worthy opponents on the course, she also defeated her inner demons.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.