Improved PNG’s Hemler focused on winning state

Published 5:17 pm Saturday, May 13, 2017

By Bob West

The News golf writer

Great, or even very good female golfers, pass through the Golden Triangle about as often as Halley’s Comet.

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Way back, there was the incomparable Babe Zaharias. After the Babe, who has been dead over 70 years, the lone area player who has even made a ripple on the LPGA Tour is Beaumonter Susie McAllister.

McAllister, in a career that spanned from 1971-92, won once in 1975 and had a fourth-place finish in the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open. Beyond that, only a very few players with Southeast Texas roots have made even minimal impact at the collegiate level.

That situation, however, may be about to change. Port Neches-Groves senior Karlei Hemler, who will be competing in the state 5A tournament Monday and Tuesday at Wolfdancer Golf Club in Bastrop, appears to have the talent, desire and work ethic to become the first really special female player since the Babe.

Little Cypress-Mauriceville’s Lauren Cox, who is wrapping up her freshman season at the University of North Texas, is arguably the only other player who could be in that discussion. Nederland’s Felicia Sauceda might have been, but chose to be a multi-sport star in high school rather than concentrate on golf.

Hemler is all golf all the time, and has dominated area high school and junior golf in her senior season to the point there were no challenges. Her first significant test was the recent 5A Region III tournament at River Ridge in Sealy. She finished second, two shots behind winner Leah Alberto of Kingwood Park.

That showing, including the fact she beat defending 5A champ Ava Schwientect at River Ridge, has both Hemler and her long-time instructor Mitch Duncan believing she could return home from Wolfdancer as the first-ever girls state champion from the Golden Triangle.

“Our goal this year was to finish in the top five at state,” said Duncan, the head pro at Babe Zaharias. “But the way Karlei played at regional, and the way she is hitting the ball, I think she has a chance to win it all. It will come down to how many putts fall.”

“I want to win it and I think I have a good chance,” said Hemler, who two years ago became the first female player from PNG to play in a state tournament. She returned last year and finished 12th.

Duncan spent Saturday at Wolfdancer with Hemler studying the golf course and putting together a game plan. He says the player she is today, compared to when she was a sophomore at state, are as different as night and day.

“She has matured so much,” he said. “She makes better on-course decisions. Her short game has improved dramatically. It really comes down to her putting, which continues to improve. About the only thing that keeps her from going low every time she plays is making enough putts.”

Hemler, who Duncan says will be one of the longest off the tee at state, and maybe the absolute longest, says her strength is her short game.

“That’s the biggest difference for me,” she said. “I have always been pretty strong off the tee, but I started getting good by saving shots around the green.”

Duncan, citing her work ethic and talent, thinks the LPGA Tour is a realistic destination for Hemler. And he believes being challenged day in and day out playing collegiately at McNeese State is going to be a major factor in helping her achieve that dream.

“Strong competition is a big part of a player getting better,” he said. “Except for Lauren Cox, Karlei hasn’t been pushed that much.

“McNeese State has a good program. So does Lamar. And the Southland Conference is strong in women’s golf. Karlei is really going to benefit from going up against good players every day and in every tournament.”

Hemler admits to being disappointed at the quality of the opposition in Southeast Texas and even more so in the interest in golf among girls.

“This season was fun but it wasn’t fun,” she said. “I love competition and being pushed to make myself better,” she said. “Without Lauren, I pretty much knew I was going to win every tournament. It is disappointing that more girls are not into golf because it is such a great game and offers so many scholarship opportunities.

“It seems like girls are more into the other sports. They don’t see golf as a sport for girls. They think it is more of a sport for boys. I was into softball at one time, but golf has taught me so much more.”

Hemler, a three-time district champion and four-time Babe Zaharias Player of the Year Finalist, has won over 100 tournaments at various levels. Her career low scores are 67s at Tamika Trails in Marksville, La., and Squaw Valley in Waco.

She can even lay claim to having birdied the iconic par-5, 18th hole at Pebble Beach while playing alongside Tommy Armour III in the Champions Tour Nature Valley First Tee Open.

“That’s my favorite memory to this point,” she says. “I actually birdied it twice – once in the practice round and once in the tournament. That was exciting.”

One would have to think that feat may have even gotten The Babe’s attention. So would winning the state tournament.