Alexa Pano

They Grow Up So Fast

Practice rounds and life lessons at the Sally

Rinko Mitsunaga was wiping my seat down again, and it was still weird. She had already cleaned my clubs and offered to get me water and snacks. We were playing in the member-competitor event, her final practice round before the tournament she was a favorite to win. Mitsunaga is a junior at the University of Georgia, a top-50 college player with plans to turn pro. As an 18-handicap walking with a limp after accidentally cracking myself in the ankle with my putter, I should have been filling her divots and picking the dirt out of her soft spikes. 

Yet here we were, on the 17th hole at Oceanside Country Club with a heavy Florida mist saturating us, and despite being clearly bedeviled by the green speeds, she was helping me whenever she could. As expected, her swing was elegant, but her graceful attitude left a bigger impression.

I was at the Women’s South Atlantic Amateur Golf Championship to shine a light on an event, and a rapidly growing segment of the game, that golf fans don’t usually see. But after watching 10-year-old girls through college-age young women hammer drives on the range, along with 18 eye-opening holes with Mitsunaga and 13-year-old prodigy Alexa Pano, I suddenly had a personal question to answer: Am I ready for my daughter to become a golf phenom?

It didn’t matter that she was 5 months old and the only thing she could do to a Pro V1 is gum it into slobbery submission. The Sally, as this event is affectionately called, made me realize that my daughter’s playing future suddenly wasn’t that far off.

girl with tee in hair

The families at this tournament had already made their decision and did not take it lightly. Today, parents of gifted players make a massive commitment of time, money and lifestyle. The Sally is one of many tournaments players must consider. You don’t travel to Ormond Beach, Florida, less than a month after Christmas, when school is in for most students, and stay for a week unless you truly believe your baby girl has a future in this game. 

More and more think they do. The LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program, which focuses on providing juniors proper instruction, is just one indicator. Since 2011, Girls Golf has grown from 5,000 participants to more than 70,000. “If you look back in 1995, 17 percent of all junior golfers were girls, exactly what adult golfers looked like,” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan told Golf Channel in 2017. “You jump forward and you look at today, 32 percent of youth golfers under the age of 18 are women. We’ve never seen that kind of jump.”

And while the growth of girls’ junior golf and the women’s college game is encouraging for executives like Whan, it’s terrifying for these parents. More players means more competition. Colleges aren’t handing out scholarships to kids shooting 85 anymore. So it didn’t matter how funny it was when I somehow sliced a drive over the tree line and across A1A: The Sally is no joke to the players, and it’s even more serious for the parents. 

The Sally is an attractive event for them because it sits in the sweet spot for this trend. As a high-level amateur tournament with a handicap requirement, it’s open to both junior and college players, and some of the best in the nation make the trek to this quirky but lovable spot on the Florida coast. 

Going north on I-95, Ormond Beach is the next town up from Daytona Beach. It’s more affluent and less neon, but still proclaims itself the Birthplace of Speed and is very much a suburb of the world’s most famous speedway. You’ll know its main exit by the sprawling Harley-Davidson store/BBQ joint/festival ground built for Biketoberfest, a rowdy annual event that draws more than 100,000 rumbling motorcycle enthusiasts. As I rolled into town on a foggy morning, I was welcomed by some dude in a jacked-up truck thundering past me at roughly 37 miles over the speed limit. 

Oceanside Country Club, an old-money club that opened in 1907 and was once the winter home of John D. Rockefeller, sits just west of A1A. Some of its members are wealthy transplants who know they saved several zeroes by building a dream beach house here instead of West Palm or Naples. Others are more local, with roots in the nearby car dealerships and banks that go back decades.

It may seem odd that an area so heavily fueled by testosterone would be amenable to shutting down its club for a week to host a women’s amateur event. But once you see the Sally in motion, with the young ladies puring balls on the range and the members catering to their needs, it’s clear that OCC is a perfect home. 

To a person, members and employees puff their chests for this event. And why not? For decades they’ve worked hard to build it into one of the most prestigious competitions on the women’s amateur circuit, and certainly one of the most historic. This was the 92nd Sally, every one of them played on Oceanside’s classic Florida layout.

This tournament is not a burden to the membership here; it’s very much a point of pride. Every member I spoke to had a favorite moment and player. Mike Kulzer grew up running around OCC and his family has deep roots in the event. His mother is named Sally. Seriously. “My mom played the Sally for many years,” Kulzer told me. “One year she made a hole-in-one on No. 9. That was January. I was born in March.”

The wall leading from the pro shop to the men’s locker room in the clubhouse is covered with framed photographs of almost every winner. So what if they can’t find some from the early years? They do have a portrait of Dot Klotz Purdue, who won the first two Sally events in 1926 and ’27. They’ve also got Patty Berg, the World Golf Hall of Famer who won it in 1938 and ’39, and the legendary Babe Zaharias, who, despite several attempts, grabbed her only Sally title in 1947. The shot of Cristie Kerr after her 1996 win comes complete with gigantic Coke-bottle glasses and the goofiest of grins. Members proudly point to the frame of Brooke Henderson, who won it in 2014 as a 16-year-old: “She turned pro the next week!” Grace Park, Julieta Granada, Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, Moriya and Ariya Jutanugarn—the list of winners is legit.

And you’ll often hear the members happily chatting about them. Like the large pool area and a stiff drink from the waitstaff, claiming the exploits of Sally champions is an OCC privilege going back decades. In 1997, Oceanside commissioned a full-color, hardcover book to commemorate its 100th anniversary. It’s full of wonderful Sally anecdotes like this one about Zaharias from the 1968 official program: “The great Babe always drew a tremendous gallery and sprinkled bon mots all over the 6,500 yards of fairway.…Once, an old Ormond gaffer was trying to photograph the statuesque Mildred, but kept a nervous finger over the camera lens. ‘Hey, Pop,’ yelled Babe, ‘I don’t look that bad, do I?’”

“We’re proud of this tournament,” says Chuck Grant, former club president and current volunteer chairman for the event. “We get to create a real connection to so many of these young women that become pros: We spend the week with them, get to play with them in the Member-Sally event and get to know their parents.”

Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious: Amateur tournaments are definitely not professional tournaments. They do not have full-time employees focused on food and hospitality. There is no live scoring. Even high-profile events like the Sally are by nature more bootstrapped than the average golf fan would expect; members and staff pitch in on every detail. Head pro Chris Klinck, and his team turned the floor of the pro shop into an arts-and-crafts workshop while getting the handwritten scoreboards ready. When it rained on the Wednesday of the event, Dave Main, the club’s GM, wrote the email update to the players and their families while Grant texted his guy at the local GMC dealership to ask if they could keep the showcase cars on the course until next week because driving them out over the weekend could tear up some still-soaked fairways.

It was a huge deal from an organizational standpoint when Grant and the OCC membership ponied up for free lunches this year. But it might have meant more to the players.

“Wow—we don’t even have this at some college events,” Mitsunaga grinned as we grabbed a burger cooked by an OCC member manning the grill at the turn.

Perks like this often make the difference on whether players attend the event, and Sally organizers know they have to compete.

“You can tell when a club doesn’t want you there,” says Claire Albrecht, a junior player on her way to Notre Dame. “The Sally has a reputation for being great to us. Food, people and the environment make a difference, and the Sally has it.”

“We put the girls and their families first,” Grant explains. “It’s important for us to have that family character here. One year, we let a family park their camper in our lot and shower in the locker rooms. We want them to feel at home, so we do everything we can.”

To help cut down travel costs, members even open their homes for the week to players and their families. This further deepens the connection: Members, players and families end up sharing dinners, stories and secrets about the course setup. At the club, Wednesday night is the annual dinner buffet, where players eat free. Local restaurants donate their wares for the highly anticipated Food & Wine Gala on Thursday night. Everybody always goes. 

And while they love the Thursday-night event, some older members wistfully talk about the days when the Sally was mostly played by traveling adult amateurs. It wasn’t in the 100th-anniversary book, but there was a legendary annual Friday-night karaoke party that turned into some rough Saturday mornings for both members and players.

Things are different now, as evidenced by the new topic of conversation at the club: This year, the ANNIKA Invitational USA, a prestigious AJGA-sanctioned junior event an hour up I-95 at World Golf Village, landed on the same weekend as the Sally and many players had to make a choice. 

Pano, the star who is already 5’8″, splits every fairway she sees and is ticketed for very big things, played the Sally in large part because she’d played the year before and appreciated the family feel at OCC. 

“We love it here,” her father and coach, Rick, told me as she teed off on the second hole during the Member-Sally event. 

For all the youthful, family-friendly energy in an event like this, ever-present parent-coaches like Rick are somewhat of an elephant in the room. There’s no getting around them, on or off the course; they monitor every swing, putt and conversation. Even when they aren’t standing over their girls, you can see them in the not-too-far distance, arms crossed, watching. For someone like me, who hasn’t experienced many junior events, it was jarring. (It certainly made ordering a vodka-soda on No. 11 more awkward than usual.) 

And, as with any big family, there are whispers of overbearing parents and child-prodigy burnouts. Although OCC members don’t like talking about it, it’s obvious that they’ve seen and heard some borderline ugly things. Mitsunaga and Pano both had their fathers walking with our group, and while they were friendly and polite, this was still a competition; there were a few words after every missed putt and every swing that was just a touch off. Again, I turned inward. For me, golf is a joy; this was something different. My mind hurtled forward, worrying if competitive play would rob my daughter of that same happiness on the course, whether she was equipped to handle this kind of pressure and scrutiny, if she was going to secretly hate me for pulling her out of school and away from her friends to chase this increasingly rare dream… Suddenly I was thankful for having such miniscule natural athletic ability to pass along. 

Then I spoke to the Albrecht girls.

“Yes, some parents can be intense,” Emma Albrecht, Claire’s older sister and a junior at Notre Dame, told me. “But to play at this level, you personally have to want it. That’s the most important thing for success, not whatever the parents want. I think we’ve found a great balance with our parents.”

“You have to enjoy it on some level or you’ll drop out,” Claire chimed in.

I felt better and couldn’t help but smile listening to Grant and Kulzer chatting about former players as if they were relatives coming over for Easter dinner, gossiping about where some went to college, jobs since others graduated, who just got married and who is having kids of their own.

As we finished the Member-Sally, everyone swirled around the clubhouse, many going inside to grab a bite and a drink. These are moments the members cherish: chatting casually with the college players about their football team (Mitsunaga and I made a tacit agreement not to discuss her Bulldogs, who had their hearts ripped out by Alabama in the national championship game the night before), rehashing a long putt and a chip-in, quizzing the juniors on which colleges they want to attend.

It was all so jovial that I finally came to grips with my daughter’s future. Maybe she could become the next Lexi or Lydia. From Mitsunaga’s manners to the giggly Albrechts, I saw more feel-good stories than nightmares. So I began plotting January 2028, when we would happily snub the ANNIKA for the Sally. Pete Jansen, a member who lives within walking distance, already says it’s no problem to stay with his family.

Relieved, I asked if Mitsunaga and her father wanted to join me inside to continue our conversation. “Thank you,” she said while packing up. “But I’ve got to go—homework.”