This is the 12th in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
By all accounts, Leigh Anne Hardin (now Creavy) and Merion Golf Club were perfectly matched for the 50th playing of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
The club’s classic East Course, often considered short in today’s modern era of big and bold layouts, features tight, tree-lined fairways and undulating greens, and generally rewards precision over power.
Great ball-strikers such as Chick Evans, Bob Jones, Dorothy Porter, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino had prevailed in previous USGA championships contested at the famous Ardmore, Pa., club.
Hardin had first heard about Merion as a 13-year-old quarterfinalist in 1995 at Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club, when championship committee members talked about the upcoming venue. A year later, Hardin was a semifinalist at Westward Ho Country Club in Sioux Falls, S.D., losing to eventual champion Dorothy Delasin, 1 down. In 1997, when Hardin reached the third round of the Girls’ Junior at The Legends of Tennessee in Nashville, Merion was again discussed in reverential tones.
|Leigh Anne Hardin poses with the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy after winning the 1998 U.S. Girls' Junior. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)
“I was thinking, this place must be great,” said Hardin. “I knew the history of it. But not until you set foot on that first tee box do you take a look around and say, wow! It’s every bit of what they say it is… It’s so cool.”
Merion, which measured 5,913 yards for the 1998 Girls’ Junior, was the ideal venue for Hardin to show it doesn’t take brute strength to win a national championship. While she was already nationally recognized – Hardin finished her junior career as a five-time American Junior Golf Association All-American – she excelled despite not overwhelming golf courses or opponents with superior distance. Hardin relied on pinpoint accuracy and dexterity with the wedge and putter to claim titles.
“If you put a 3-wood in her hands, it’s just like putting a 9-iron in my hands,” said good friend Brittany Straza, who lost to Hardin, 2-down, in the 18-hole final.
At Merion, Hardin wore out her 3-wood and driver, often hitting the latter from the fairway on the longer par-4s and par-5s. When one can putt like Ben Crenshaw, long approach shots aren’t too much of a concern. Combine that with a fierce competitiveness derived from playing on two state high school championship basketball teams at Martinsville (Ind.) High and you had a golfer who couldn’t be intimidated.
Hardin, 16 at the time of her Girls’ Junior victory, grew up with two older brothers, so there were always family battles, whether on the golf course or other athletic pursuits.
That’s why Hardin loved match play. Her record in five Girls’ Juniors – she missed the cut by one stroke as the defending champion in 1999 – was a remarkable 15-3, and she reached at least the round of 16 in her first four appearances.
“Match play was awesome because it’s you against that person one on one,” said Hardin. “[And] I was extremely competitive.”
The week at Merion began with a dinner commemorating the 50th playing of the Girls’ Junior, which began in 1949 with 33 entrants competing at nearby Philadelphia Country Club. One-quarter of that inaugural field was in attendance and they spoke about the groundbreaking competition.
Thirteen past champions also eloquently recalled their victories in this prestigious national championship. They were joined by Missy Farr, who represented her sister, the late Heather Farr, who died of breast cancer just 11 years after winning the Girls’ Junior in 1982. Delasin, the 1996 champion, was still eligible to compete at age 17, and she talked about beating her “idol” Grace Park in the final. Park would win the U.S. Women’s Amateur two weeks later in Michigan.
“I’m still playing this year,” Delasin warned her fellow competitors at the Players’ Dinner. “You better watch out.”
The 64 golfers who qualified for match play included several future USGA and LPGA Tour champions, led by Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, who would win 27 LPGA events, including two majors, before retiring from the game in 2010. Delasin would go on to add the Women’s Amateur to her résumé a year later in Asheville, N.C. Virada Nirapathpongporn claimed the 2003 Women’s Amateur and was the runner-up to 13-year-old Michelle Wie at the 2003 Women’s Amateur Public Links. Aree Song Wongluekiet, then just 12 and competing with twin sister, Naree, would become the youngest-ever USGA champion by winning the Girls’ Junior in 1999. Naree would be low amateur at the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open. Candie Kung, the previous year’s Girls’ Junior runner-up, would go on to win the 2001 WAPL and finish as the runner-up at the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open.
And there was Hardin, a 5-foot-5 blonde dynamo who was ready for the national spotlight.
Two solid rounds of 74-72 easily qualified Hardin for match play, where she hardly broke a sweat in getting to the championship match. None of the matches leading to the final went past the 16th hole, including a 9-and-7 second-round rout of Lauren Grzebien.
“It was such an honor to be playing on that course that I kept telling myself that I want to win every match because I want to play here as much as I can,” recalled Hardin in a recent phone interview from Orlando, Fla., where she now lives with her husband, Tom Creavy, a noted PGA teaching professional, and sons Tyler, 3, and Patrick, 1. “I was so confident on those greens because they were so good and in great shape. If you put a good stroke on it, you knew it was going to go in. That really helped my confidence. I putted great the whole week.”
Hardin opened match play with an easy 5-and-4 win over Angela Rho, and after defeating Grzebien, she dispatched Celeste Troche of Paraguay, 3 and 2, in the round of 16. Hardin handled Jeanne Cho, 6 and 5, in the quarterfinals and then beat Kristin Thompson by the same margin in the semifinals. That set up a championship-match showdown against Straza, another Indiana native who had moved to Fort Myers, Fla., so she could play golf year-round and improve her college scholarship chances.
“My first [five] matches were pretty relaxing,” said Hardin. “But then the last one was a bit stressful.”
For the first time all week, Hardin faced a deficit when she double-bogeyed the first hole, and Straza converted her stress-free birdie putt. The next seven holes were halved, including birdie-4s at the fourth. Then Straza made the first of two critical mistakes. At the 166-yard downhill ninth, each player had lagged long birdie putts to 2 feet, but Straza rushed her par putt, missing it to the right. Hardin converted and the match was all square.
Two holes later, Straza found the right rough off the tee. Hardin hit a marvelous approach to within inches of the hole, putting the pressure on Straza, who dumped her 8-iron approach from 139 yards into the creek near the green. Hardin’s birdie was conceded when Straza failed to hole her par pitch.
“It was probably one of my biggest mistakes of the week,” Straza said after the match.
In 35 minutes, Hardin had gone from 1 down to 1 up. But the lead was short-lived. At the short par-3 13th, Straza dropped a 15-foot birdie putt to square the match again. The two traded wins with pars on holes 14 (Hardin) and 16 (Straza), setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
The par-3 17th hole, which measured 198 yards, had decided an 18-hole playoff 22 years earlier between Gary Cowan and Deane Beman in the U.S. Amateur, and it would prove pivotal again in 1998. Straza needed three putts from just off the green, while Hardin, who used a 3-wood from the tee, needed only two putts from 45 feet.
“Brittany missed like a 4-footer,” said Hardin. “So I was 1 up going into the last hole. I felt really confident because it’s always good to be in that position.”
A day earlier, Hardin had played Merion’s closing five holes to get reacquainted with them. She had not played 15 and 16 since her third-round win over Troche and had not seen 17 and 18 since the conclusion of stroke-play qualifying. Her father, Steve, threw down some balls behind the 18th green so Leigh Anne could practice a potential chip shot. He knew that Leigh Anne likely would need a 3-wood or more to reach 18 in regulation.
His clairvoyance paid off. Hardin’s tee shot landed not far from the fairway plaque where Hogan had played his famous 1-iron approach to the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open. Hardin still has the Golf Journal photo that depicts her 3-wood approach shot, in which she strikes a pose similar to Hogan’s in Hy Peskin’s iconic image. Just like her father had expected, the ball rolled over the green into the rough. Straza made another bogey, while Hardin got up and down for par and a 2-up victory in front of an gallery estimated at 1,000.
Hardin had stamped her place in history on the East Course, where Jones had completed his 1930 “Grand Slam” and Hogan had recovered from a near-fatal auto accident to win the 1950 Open.
Hardin shared a prolonged hug with her father and began crying. Eighteen AJGA titles and a future NCAA title at Duke could not trump a USGA championship on the golden anniversary of the most prestigious girls’ championship in the world, contested at a classic venue.
“It’s neat to be considered part of that list,” Hardin said afterward, “to be up with those great names.”
It’s a short list, but one that Merion is quite proud to showcase.
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.