Teen sensation grabbing headlines for Georgia
Alina Lee, who at 16 is a college sophomore at Georgia, is obviously a quick learner. She brings that quality to the golf course, as well, writes Ryan Herrington.
There is hardly anything that gives away the fact Alina Lee, nearing the end of her second season on the University of Georgia women's golf team, is only 16 years old.
Not a driver's license; she doesn't have one yet, actually, or a learner's permit. "I'm scared to death of driving," Lee confesses. "I'm not very good. I've gotten into two golf cart accidents."
And certainly not her game. Earlier this spring she claimed a share of her first college title at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic. Entering this weekend's SEC championship -- where the Bulldogs are among the favorites -- Lee has three top-15 finishes in the spring and a 74.1 stroke average for the entire season.
Truth is, unless somebody else brings it up, Lee prefers not to acknowledge that most girls her age are sophomores in high school -- not college. "I usually tell everyone a little white lie," she says. "I tell everyone I'm 19. I guess because I do well in school, and when I'm in class I handle myself in a mature manner, everyone believes me. I never have a problem except when the school paper writes about how old I am."
The thing is, Lee doesn't think she's anything special and doesn't want anyone else to think it, either. Nor does she wish to be treated differently, something she says has happened in the past when adults and classmates find out she's younger than they figured. She's merely looking to be as ordinary an undergraduate student as she can.
There is little ordinary about Lee, who first started showing she was capable of things beyond her years in the fourth grade. An only child born in Massachusetts but having moved to Florida because of her parents' jobs (father, Joe, had an import-export business; mother, Jean, ran a Japanese restaurant), Lee was put into a gifted program and started testing out of classes. By the time her family moved again when she was 12, this time to Bradenton, Fla., where she could work on her golf game at the David Leadbetter Academy, middle-school teachers realized she would be taking the same material she already had passed and gave her permission to enter high school early.
Once there, she continued working at an accelerated speed academically, eventually taking classes online when her family moved again, this time to Georgia, so she could finish in three years. "I've just been so used to studying at a faster pace," Lee says. "When I went to a normal high school, it just seemed a lot slower."
Suffice it to say the drive that helped Lee advance through high school so quickly is evident on the golf course, where she showed promise with victories in the 2005 Western Junior (she beat Duke sensation Amanda Blumenherst in the final to break Nancy Lopez's record as the youngest winner of the event) and the 2005 Independent Insurance Agent Junior Classic.
"She is the hardest working player I've ever seen," says Georgia women's coach Todd McCorkle. "I would say on a 1 to 10 scale, if Alina is a 10 work ethic, the next hardest I've ever had I would have to put down at a 6. Nobody is even on her planet as far as work ethic.
"I thought my wife [current LPGA player Jenna Daniels] was the hardest worker I'd even seen in college. I just thought she was tireless. But she can't warm Alina up as far as work ethic."
A typical day for Lee entails going to the gym for 6:30 a.m. workouts with her teammates. On days with morning classes, she's at the golf course by 11:30 a.m., practicing on her own until 2 when formal team practice begins. She usually doesn't leave (her parents drive her around campus) until close to 6, when she grabs a quick dinner, goes to study hall and tackles classwork until 10.
Lee first took up golf when her family moved to Florida and her interest in tennis waned with the hotter, more humid climate. The self-reliance required to excel on the course is something she embraces; it allows her to decide for herself what she needs to focus and work on.
Given her rapid movement through school, Lee's golf game has been forced to follow at a similar speedy measure. McCorkle contends that her improvement this spring is in large part a function of experience. "She still has played relatively few tournaments compared to most college players," he notes. "I think it's just the day-to-day learning and maturing as a person that's going to take her further in golf. She's got the mechanics of the golf swing. She's got the desire to be great. Now it's just time and experience."
Lee lives at home with her parents, but by her senior year anticipates living in a dorm. Her teammates see her as merely one of the girls ("It only took a few days for everyone to forget she was younger than us," says fellow sophomore Taylor Leon). Interestingly, she doesn't have any grand plans to get through college in less than four years, but does look forward to the future, when she hopes to play on the LPGA Tour. Once there, however, she expects to maximize her time.
"I do want to play professionally and want to play on tour, but no longer than 35. At 35, I'm going to retire and do something else."
No doubt doing it quickly.
The Fab Five
The top five teams right now in the country:
Competing against a tough field this weekend at Sea Island will keep the Bulldogs on their toes. Keep an eye on freshman Hudson Swafford, who has two top-fives this spring and has a bead on the SEC freshman of the year award.
A win is a win, even if it's from a tiebreaker, so credit the Cardinal for their sixth victory of the 2006-07 season this past weekend at the U.S. Intercollegiate. Coach Conrad Ray can't be disappointed to see Daniel Lim card his first top-five finish of the season last weekend in Palo Alto.
The unique format of the conference tournament (play six, count five; 72 holes) benefits the Bruins, who have plenty of depth. Junior Kevin Chappell, meanwhile, is on a nice roll, with his worst finish in his last four starts being a T-9.
The Crimson Tide have experience on their side heading to Sea Island this weekend as four of the five starters have played in previous conference championships there, Matthew Swan finishing T-3 at the 2006 SEC. As if they need any extra incentive, a win will give the Tide five team victories on the year, breaking the school's single-season record set by a Jerry Pate-led squad in 1972.
The Cardinals benefit from USC's dismal showing at the U.S. Intercollegiate (12th place), plus Oklahoma State's inconsistency, plus Florida's spring slide. More importantly, they're also a very talented squad who made their win yesterday at the Southland Conference championship their sixth of the season and fourth in the last five starts. All five starters are back from last year's squad that finished T-9 at nationals. Don't sleep on Lamar.
1. Arizona State
Don't read much into Sun Devils' third-place finish in a tri-match this past weekend with UCLA and Southern California, where teams played under a modified Stableford scoring format. The Sun Devils will be ready to claim a fourth straight tournament title next week.
The Blue Devils got the job done under tough weather conditions in Charlotte last weekend, winning their 12th straight ACC title by 35 strokes. Three-peat at nationals remains a very realistic outcome.
The Tigers are eyeing their seventh SEC title in school history, and if it gets tight down the stretch in Mississippi, Auburn is your pick. The school owns all four of the SEC championship's closest victories.
For as solid a team as the Bulldogs have been of late, they haven't won a conference title since 2001. Georgia has the talent to change that this weekend. The question is whether the Bulldogs have the hunger.
For a team that didn't make it to nationals a year ago, the Commodores have themselves in great position as the postseason beckons, having posted seven top-fives in nine starts.
Golf World Players of the Week
Charlie Beljan, New Mexico
The 22-year-old senior tied a career low with an opening-round 66 at the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, then followed it with a 67-68 for a 15-under 201 and a three-shot victory over Oregon's Derek Sipe. It was Beljan's third win of the season. "When he is playing his game, hitting greens and getting the putter going, he is tough to beat," said Lobos coach Glen Millican. "He didn't make a lot of mistakes this weekend and that's why you saw him post three scores under par."
Alejandra Shaw, Campbell
It wasn't just that the 22-year-old senior from Chile repeated as medalist at the Atlantic Sun Conference championship last week, or helped the Camels win the team title for the eighth time in 12 years. Shaw's 14-shot win tied the conference record for largest margin of victory (Moira Dunn, Florida International, 1993), and her 4-under 212 performance broke the previous tournament record by two strokes.
Stat of the Week
2Difference in the number of strokes taken this season by Stanford's Rob Grube, Zack Miller and Joseph Bramlett. Grube's victory at the U.S. Intercollegiate left him at 2,147 strokes in 30 rounds (71.57 average). Miller's 218 and Bramlett's 211 left the two tied with 2,149 strokes in 30 rounds (71.63 average).
What to Watch For
• The Oregon men had never finished in the top three in the 35-year history of the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, much less won the thing, making last weekend's three-shot victory over the host Sun Devils at the ASU Karsten Course in Tempe all the more impressive. The Ducks staked themselves to a five-stroke lead after the second round, then posted an even-par 288 on Sunday (and 20-under 844 total) to claim their second title of the season under first-year coach Casey Martin. Leading the way was junior Derek Sipe, who went 43 holes without a bogey during one stretch en route to a second-place finish, his fourth top-10 of the season. By tournament's end, Oregon had defeated Pac-10 foes Arizona State, USC and Arizona. Call it a lucky weekend if you like, but considering that the Ducks hosts the conference championship next week at Eugene CC, you have to wonder if there might be a dark horse here -- one that quacks -- who might just give Stanford, UCLA and the other West Coast favorites a run for their money.
• As the conference championships come at us fast and furious the next few weeks, player of the year honors are going to be awarded. I don't have a magic eight-ball, but trying to imagine what might take place in the league tournaments, here are my best guesses as to who will get such recognition in some of the bigger conferences:
Men: Billy Horschel, Florida
I just think the sophomore will have a big weekend at Sea Island and narrowly beat out Georgia senior Chris Kirk.
Women: Jacqui Concolino, Vanderbilt
Again, just a feeling, but I think she'll push past Florida's Sandra Gal, Georgia's Taylor Leon and Arkansas' Stacy Lewis.
Men: Webb Simpson, Wake Forest
Got his first college victory last week and I see him making it two-for-two with an ACC title at the Old North State Club.
Men: Gary Woodland, Kansas
With Oklahoma State's Pablo Martin and Jonathan Moore missing more than a few tournaments during the season, Woodland's three wins, six top-fives and eight top-10s deserve recognition.
Men: Matt Harmon, Michigan State
Recent victory at the Kepler gives him four top-five finishes on the season.
Women: Maria Hernandez, Purdue
Hard to argue against her recent stretch of play -- she has two victories and a runner-up finish where she lost a playoff.
Men: Jamie Lovemark, USC
He's going to have to earn it at Eugene, as Stanford's Rob Grube and Zack Miller, plus Arizona State's Niklas Lemke all can make claims as well.
Women: Anna Nordqvist, Arizona State
But she's going to have to beat out teammate Jennifer Osborn up in Seattle if she wants it. Oh, and Arizona's Alison Walshe too.
• The second signing period for next fall's incoming freshman class is under way and there are no major bombshells. Among the potential diamonds in the rough might be a pickup made by the Georgia women, who signed Scottish native Krystle Caithness. The 18-year-old was an alternate on the Great Britain & Ireland Curtis Cup team a year ago, played in last fall's Women's World Amateur Team Championship and has won the Scottish under-21 title once and the under-18 title twice.
Tournament to Watch
Men: The Fossum Invitational by Red Cedar Lodge
When: April 21-22
Where: Forest Akers GC, East Lansing, Mich. (Par 72, 7,013 yards)
Field: Ball State, Charlotte, Eastern Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rice, Toledo, Wisconsin, Xavier
Defending champion: Indiana (6-over 870); Charlie Soule, Denver (9-under 207)
Skinny: The tournament celebrates its 40th anniversary and its tournament namesake, legendary Spartans coach Bruce Fossum, will be the lead speaker at the event's welcome dinner. Seven Big Ten schools are in the field, giving it the feeling of a conference championship preview as the programs will meet again at Ohio State's Scarlet Course April 27-29.
Women: Lady Buckeye Spring Invitational
When: April 21-22
Where: Ohio State's Scarlet Course, Columbus, Ohio
Field: Eastern Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kent State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Toledo, Western Michigan, Wisconsin
Defending champion: Auburn (15-under 849); Maria Martinez, Auburn (9-under 207)
Skinny: Just like the men's event in East Lansing, this tournament will take on the feel of a Big Ten conference preview with nine of the 11 schools competing.
Conference championships are under way look for separate previews and reviews on Campus Insider in the coming days.
For more reporting on college golf from Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington, visit his Campus Insider blog.