May 3, 2016
Where the Women Reign Supreme
Northern California has played a prominent role in the story of women’s golf. Here’s a look at those who shaped the region.
***This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of NCGA Golf Magazine
By Ron Kroichick
As a young, golf-crazed girl in Pleasanton, Paula Creamer quickly learned about the women’s game’s rich history in Northern California.
She saw it in plain view on the clubhouse wall at Castlewood Country Club. That’s where a photo showed Pat Hurst, proud alum of Castlewood’s junior program, when she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1990.
Then, at age 11 or 12, Creamer met Juli Inkster while playing in a junior tournament at Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz. Inkster was well on her way to becoming a Hall of Famer and the best player ever from Northern California – and, not incidentally, Creamer’s role model.
Soon thereafter, at 13, Creamer’s connection to her predecessors became even stronger. Her dad, Paul, helped arrange some informal, nine-hole rounds at Castlewood in which Creamer played with Hurst and Dana Dormann, another local LPGA pro (and two-time winner on tour).
Two professionals and a freshly minted teenager, strolling the fairways together. That made an impression, absolutely.
“They just really took me under their wing,” Creamer said. “I was surprised I even made contact at the 1st tee, but they made me very comfortable. … It’s neat to see professionals play golf when you’re 13 years old.”
One generation, meet the next.
This tradition offers a suitable backdrop as the game’s premier event, the U.S. Women’s Open, comes to CordeValle in July. That, remarkably, will be only the second women’s Open held in Northern California – Sacramento’s Del Paso Country Club served as host in 1982 – and the first played in the Bay Area.
The history of great NorCal players runs deep, from Inkster and Patty Sheehan to Hurst and, yep, Creamer. That long-ago, wide-eyed kid now is a 10-time LPGA winner and one of the game’s most popular and recognizable players.
But the roll call in our little corner of the world stretches beyond the biggest names. Also consider LPGA winners Christina Kim and Natalie Gulbis, still active on tour; Dorothy Delasin, an accomplished amateur before she picked up four LPGA victories; two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kay Cockerill, now a Golf Channel broadcaster; or, dipping farther back, two-time U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur winner Loma Smith.
Northern California played a prominent role in the story of women’s golf, well before America’s national championship decided to make its long-overdue return in the summer of 2016.
Inkster was 3 when her parents moved into a house along the 14th fairway at Pasatiempo. But she played several other sports – basketball, track, swimming, softball, tennis – before seriously picking up golf at age 15.
She always had abundant athletic ability, obviously, and fierce determination. Those are prerequisites to winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur in three consecutive years, plus pocketing 31 LPGA victories, including seven major championships.
Another factor: Inkster honed her game on the classic Alister MacKenzie course outside her childhood backyard.
“When I played in college (at San Jose State), I had to learn to shoot under par,” she said. “If I shot one or two over at Pasatiempo, I thought I was doing well. Then you got on shorter courses and you had to be 3-under. It took me a little while to learn how to keep going.
“But I really do think it helped me win those U.S. Amateurs and the U.S. Open, because par was a good score at Pasatiempo. It definitely groomed me.”
This helps explain the parade of top players to emerge from Northern California over the years. Good weather allows for year-round play – well, maybe not in El Nino winters – and old, stout courses offer demanding tests.
Many of those tracks are tight and tree-lined, requiring players to hit accurate shots or endure the consequences. That’s ideal preparation for USGA events, and it’s probably no coincidence so many NorCal players thrived on that national stage.
Inkster, Cockerill and Hurst combined to win the Women’s Amateur six times in 11 years (1980-90). Inkster later added two U.S. Women’s Open titles (1999 and 2002), and Creamer also won the Open at rugged Oakmont Country Club in 2010.
These trophies trace to the nature of golf in the region, in some ways.
“There were never amazing or expansive practice facilities, because of the value of land, so it was really about getting out on the course, playing the game and scoring,” said Cockerill, who grew up in the Santa Cruz mountains. “We weren’t as caught up in the swing mechanics – it was more about learning from your ball flight and learning how to score.
“And those courses were pretty darn good, too, especially for those of us who grew up near the coast.”
Cockerill marveled at the variety of styles and terrains scattered around the area. She recalled one summer of junior golf in which she played a tree-lined course in 95-degree weather in Santa Rosa.
A few days later, she played in 55-degree weather in Bodega Bay, with 25-mph winds. She had no choice but to adapt if she wanted to compete.
“You had to learn how to score on different grasses and terrains,” Cockerill said. “Maybe that prepared us for the variety of courses nationwide.”
Widen the lens and our trip through Northern California history dates to the 1920s and ‘30s, when Marion Hollins became a pioneer in golf course development. That largely was a man’s province – and remains so nearly 100 years later – but Hollins worked with MacKenzie and developed Cypress Point and Pasatiempo.
Nice work there, wouldn’t you say?
Also consider the long-lasting impact of Helen Lengfeld, who founded the California Women’s Amateur Championship and sponsored several tournaments that ultimately led to the LPGA. Lengfeld was extraordinarily supportive of young girls playing golf; Cockerill recently discovered keepsakes from the 1982 California Junior Girls championship, which Lengfeld ran at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
Many other women with Northern California ties deserve mention, including Dr. Patricia Cornett, a Curtis Cup standout and captain; Sally (Voss) Krueger, who won the San Francisco City Championship a record 10 times; Mina Harigae, Lynne Cowan and Shelley Hamlin, all of whom won the state amateur four times; and, more recently, Karen Garcia, winner of last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.
The procession began, in many ways, with Sheehan. She grew up as a skier, splitting time between Vermont and Lake Tahoe, but she played much of her junior golf in Northern California and later lived in Los Gatos. Her junior days were a springboard toward a Hall-of-Fame career in which Sheehan won two California state amateur titles and 35 LPGA events, including six majors.
Sheehan “competed with a light-hearted intensity,” as Cockerill put it – perpetually smiling, engaging with spectators, unfurling a picturesque swing. Sheehan also played her senior year of college golf at San Jose State, where one of her teammates was Inkster (then named Juli Simpson).
Inkster was an impressionable freshman who found inspiration in watching Sheehan launch her career.
“Patty was motivating – she turned pro and had a lot of success,” Inkster said. “I picked her brain a lot. I asked a lot of questions before I turned pro.”
The lineage led to Cockerill, Hurst (a six-time LPGA winner who grew up in San Leandro) and Dormann, among others. Sheehan passed the baton to Inkster, whose wild success as a pro inspired the wave of golfers coming up behind her.
“When I saw what Juli had done, her picture and accomplishments all over the newspapers – that made a big impact,” Cockerill said.
Inkster’s impact stretched into the early 2000s, when a promising, pink-clad player burst onto the scene. Creamer, who had moved to Florida at age 14 to attend a golf academy, shared Northern California roots with Inkster – and their brief introduction at Pasatiempo when Paula was 11 or 12 – but it still took time for the kid and the Hall of Famer to bond.
Creamer admired Inkster for both the way she played, intensely but gracefully, and the way she balanced her career and family, raising two daughters. Inkster really offered a template for the life Creamer wanted to lead.
Their paths crossed a few times before Creamer joined the LPGA tour, when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open. But that doesn’t mean they sat down for extended conversations.
“It took me a long time to go and talk to her,” Creamer said. “I was always in such awe and envy. I’d see her and walk the other way. If she was in the locker room, I’d make eye contact and beeline in the other direction.”
They became closer during Creamer’s rookie season on tour (2005), eventually formed a dynamic Solheim Cup tandem and now are good friends. Inkster and Creamer also help define the rich saga of women’s golf in Northern California – with fresh chapters awaiting in July at CordeValle and in 2021, when the women’s Open comes to the Olympic Club.