PN-G’s Hemler set for Pebble Beach experience
Underscoring what a special place it is, Tom Watson once observed, “Ask any
golfer around the world to name a golf course in the United States and Pebble Beach will be the first thing they say.”
Jack Nicklaus, who like Watson won a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, lent credibility to his fiercest rival’s thought by noting that if he only had one round left to play he would want it to be at Pebble.
Perhaps even more attention-getting to 17-year-old Port Neches-Groves junior Karlei Hemler, Babe Zaharias won the first ever LPGA tournament played at Pebble Beach in 1950.
Hemler, whose goal is to someday follow the Babe’s footsteps out of Southeast Texas and onto the LPGA Tour, gets her first exposure to the Sistine Chapel of American golf this week. And she will live out every American golfer’s dream in style, by playing it in a competition involving players from the Champions Tour.
The occasion is the Nature Valley First Tee Open, a $2 million tournament for 81 pros that also includes a pro-am with 81 hand-picked junior players from First Tee chapters around the United States. Hemler was to learn her Champions Tour partner at a banquet Tuesday night.
It could be Fred Couples or Ben Crenshaw. It could be the aforementioned Watson or Tom Kite. It could be Hale Irwin, Tom Lehman or Jeff Maggert.
Actually, the name doesn’t really matter. For Hemler, and for the other juniors in the field, this is all about the experience of a lifetime.
They get at least two rounds at Pebble Beach and two more at Poppy Hills.
Those who make Saturday’s 36-hole cut by being among the top 23 pro-am teams, get a third round at Pebble, and possible national TV exposure.
As a bonus, they won’t be required to pay the $525 greens fee most everyone else has to plop down for 18 holes over the hallowed ground that nestles up to the Monterey Peninsula.
Hemler, as you would expect, was a bundle of emotions before departing on Monday. She said she was excited, nervous and a bit apprehensive. Aware that several holes at Pebble abut the Pacific Ocean, she joked that, “I hope I don’t fall in.”
Her selection out of roughly 250 First Tee applicants came on her third attempt. Criteria for getting in includes amassing points on playing ability, amount of years in the First Tee, extracurricular activities in school and community and a series of five essays worth five points each.
Hemler follows Nederland’s Felicia Sauceda (2010, 2011), Liberty’s Drake Mosley (2012) and PN-G’s Braden Bailey (2012) as players from the Golden Triangle First Tee chapter to be selected. She won’t get to make a return trip next year because after Sauceda and others went twice, a one-time rule was passed.
Those in Southeast Texas who have watched Karlei become the area’s dominant
female player are elated about the opportunity she’s getting, and hopeful that
she will be able to fully develop her enormous potential.
“I think the sky is the limit for Karlei,” says Zaharias pro Ed Campbell. “She still has so much to learn, but I love the way she strikes the ball and the way she competes. She wants to be good and I think that is going to happen.”
Mitch Duncan, the teaching pro who has been working with Hemler at Zaharias, says his pupil is a star in the making.
“I don’t know if she knows how good she can be,” says Duncan. “The improvement I’ve seen in our three years together is impressive. Where she was then to where she is now, is like night and day. Her short game is 1,000 times better than it was. I’ve seen her mature and seen her confidence grow.”
Hemler’s two biggest shortcomings, and that may not be the right word, are no fault of her own.
Golf courses in Southeast Texas, outside Beaumont Country Club, do not offer a young player the opportunity to learn shots and green speed necessary to compete at a higher level. Beyond that, there is a unfortunate lack of female competition for her in the immediate area. She has to play against boys to be pushed, but that is not allowed in most tournaments.
According to figures provided by her dad, Robert Hemler, Karlei has won 97 tournaments and placed second in 22 others during the eight years she has been
playing. Robert, as devoted a golfing dad as you will see, does his best to get her to tournaments and courses outside the area.
“We go to Lake Charles to play The National and Grey Plantation as often as
we can,” he says. “Next summer, I hope to get her in some Texas Junior Golf Association, Legends Tour and American Junior Golf Association Tournaments.
The college coaches give out most of their scholarships based on AJGA results. But playing AJGA is very expensive.”
Karlei’s best learning experiences this summer have included playing in the First Tee’s inaugural Par 3 Tournament in Richmond, Va., and attending Oklahoma State’s golf camp. The latter afforded her exposure to high leve instruction and a chance to play play OSU’s acclaimed Karsten Course.
“It was amazing,” she says of the trip to Oklahoma State. “That golf course is really, really good. They have a two-week camp next summer that I am planning to attend.”
Meantime, there is Pebble Beach, Poppy Hills and understandable nerves to address. Helping out will be the fact that Robert and his wife, Lori, will be walking every step of the way with her, and there’s a sidebar story to that.
The First Tee picks up expenses for Karlei and one chaperone. To cover the tab for mom to attend, raffle tickets were sold for a firepit and a crawfish boiler crafted by Robert, who is a welder by trade. Over $2,900 was raised for a drawing that took place in conjunction with Karlei’s 17th birthday party last Thursday in the Zaharias golf shop.
Suzanne Willis won the firepit, while Coyth and Mike Whitney held the lucky
ticket on the crawfish boiler.
“It was wonderful the way folks stepped up and bought the raffle tickets,” Robert said. “It is going to mean so much to Lori and I to be there with Karlei for this experience and for the memories.”
As for Karlei, perhaps somewhat naively she doesn’t expect to be intimidated.
“I’m usually nervous before big tournaments,” she says, “but once I’m on the course I’m fine. I love to compete and I believe in myself. It’s why I don’t do team sports very well. I don’t want to depend on other people.”
Somewhere that declaration has Babe Zaharias smiling.
Bob West is the golf writer for the Port Arthur News.