With braces on her teeth and nerves of steel, 16-year-old Kristen Gillman of Austin, Texas, won the U.S. Women's Amateur golf title Sunday with a 2-up victory over Brooke Mackenzie Henderson of Canada in a tense 36-hole final.
Henderson also is only 16, though her No. 2 world amateur ranking qualifies her as something of a grizzled veteran. Gillman is ranked 57th, but her current three-week run -- reaching the round of 16 at the U.S. Girls Junior event and winning last week's Junior PGA Championship by 11 strokes -- speaks well enough for big-match play.
And, for a noncontact sport, Sunday's match-play battle over the Nassau Country Club's 6,297-yard course was a real slugfest.
The two were all square after 16 holes before Henderson birdied Nos. 17 and 18 to take a two-stroke lead into the lunchtime break. Henderson went ahead 3-up after 26, but Gillman put her approach within 3 feet to take the next hole.
That brought them to No. 10, where Gillman might have been whistling past the graveyard. There literally is a small cemetery there, in existence before Nassau County Club was built in 1896.
Instead, Gillman did not lose another hole. Her 7-foot putt on No. 14, the 32nd hole, got her all square. She was 1-up when she pushed wide a 3-foot putt on No. 17 that would have wrapped it up. She hit a 9-iron to 2 feet on 18 and hit the winning putt.
"I was definitely nervous," Gillman said. "I think it showed a little bit on 17. I had to calm myself down and not think about it."
If it had been stroke play, Gillman would have won that, too. She shot 69-67 for a 4-under-par 136 to Henderson's 67-71--138. Whenever either player wandered off course a bit, each was able to gather herself and maintain serious drama.
Gillman began the afternoon by dumping her tee shot into the water on the third hole. But she scrambled back to save par with a 20-foot putt and halve the hole.
The start of her winning charge from No. 9 in the final round resembled her comeback in Friday's quarterfinal when she was down four holes with six to play against Su-Hyun Oh of Australia and wound up winning on the 20th hole.
Sunday, Gillman -- wearing the same (laundered) outfit as on Saturday after running out of clothes during the weeklong tournament -- birdied three of the last four holes and four of the last seven.
"I just tried not to overthink it," Gillman said of her stretch run before walking off with the champion's trophy.
"It's heavy," she said.