LPGA on the horizon?: Just a PN-G junior, Karlei Hemler is building a stellar resume on the greens

Published 11:42 pm Saturday, February 13, 2016

BEAUMONT — With the wind blowing and the Pacific Ocean waves crackling in the background of such majestic scenery, Pebble Beach is highly regarded as one of America’s grandest stages for golf.

The elements create for peace and relaxation within moments of solitude — except a game of golf is always happening there on the California coast.

“There’s sea line, seals and otters everywhere,” Karlei Hemler said. “You’re just paying attention and the beach is so pretty. That’s what you’re looking at the most. I was 16, 17 years old and I’m playing Pebble Beach.

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“It was so pretty.  That golf course isn’t very hard, but it’s just very distracting. That’s what makes it hard.”

But it’s an experience she wouldn’t trade for the world, being a teen from Texas playing with Tommy Armour III in a pro-am tournament on a course that has hosted five U.S. Opens.

The Champions Tour player paired with the Port Neches-Groves High School junior, who turned 17 in September, for the Nature Valley First Tee Open. She shot 75 at Pebble Beach and 71 at Poppy Hills playing with Armour and 72-70 in the juniors tournament.

It’s just one of her biggest golf accomplishments in her young career, which wouldn’t have taken off if not for family.

“The reason I started was my grandpa and dad,” said Hemler, who started playing nine years ago. “They both played, and I wanted to play a sport where I could hang out with them more. I played softball, volleyball and every other sport, but I just stuck with this one because I’m a team player, but I like to play by myself. I play individually. So, I don’t have to worry about everybody else.”

But at PN-G, Hemler is a proven winner individually and as part of a team.

As a sophomore, she medaled as the District 22-5A champion and led the Lady Indians to the team title. After finishing sixth in the regional tournament, she became the first PN-G girls player in the program’s now 38-year history to compete in a state tournament.

The following summer was quite productive for Hemler. She won a tournament at Oklahoma State’s golf camp and went to Virginia for a Par 3 Championship for The First Tee in June. Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Oklahoma, is home to a men’s program that has won 10 national championships, including two in the last 16 years.

“We only played nine holes, but it was the best nine holes you could play,” she said. “Of course, it’s Karsten Creek. I was 3-over with a couple of holes to go, and I eagled-birdied to beat the [second-place] girl by one. I shot 36.”

Hemler finished fourth in the South Texas PGA Championship in August, shooting 75-79, and closed out the month making a big comeback to win a tournament at Tamahka Trails in Marksville, Louisiana, for the third year in a row. She followed a first-round 77 with a career-low 67.

“The first day, we figured out my driver head was coming loose,” Hemler said. “I wasn’t playing well. We tightened it up and I just stayed focused that whole round and worried about myself and not the other girls. I was making more putts and getting it closer, and it just worked out better that day than it did the first day.”

Hemler continues to work on her game with local expert Mitch Duncan, her personal coach of three years, and it’s paying off.

On Feb. 6 she shot 75 to win a Texas-Louisiana Junior Tour event at Gray Plantation in Lake Charles by 13 strokes. That was coming off shooting a 79 in a high school tournament at Anahuac to finish as second medalist.

On Monday she turned in a 74 at Idylwild Golf Club in Sour Lake, but lost a three-hole playoff.

“Golf-wise, the best part of her game is driving the golf ball,” Duncan said. “She’s grown a lot maturity-wise as far as course management, making better decisions on the golf course.”

Duncan further explained course management from a player’s point of view, rather than that assigned to course superintendents.

“Her and I working together, when she stands on the tee box analyzing everything, it’s not necessarily just pulling that driver out and swinging away on a par-4, par-5, looking at: Where’s the trouble? Do I need to hit the driver out here? Do I just need to hit something that would give me a good approach shot?” Duncan said. “Just thinking her way around the golf course, swinging away.”

With more invitations to big-name tournaments and more success on the high-school level, Hemler could join a short list of professional players from PN-G, including Chris Stroud and Andrew Landry.

“If I’m good enough, that’s what I want to do, but I do want to get college experience first,” she said. “If it’s just two years, I still want to go to college. That’s what I’ve been working on first.”

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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