If spectators at the prestigious SALLY Women’s Amateur in mid-January didn’t already know it they never would have guessed that the leader of the four-day event heading into the final nine holes was only 12 years old. She hit the ball as far off the tee, stuck her approach shots as close, and putted as well as the two college players with whom she was paired in the lead group in the final round while competing in the second longest-running women’s amateur event in the United States. Only the U.S. Women’s Amateur has been in existence longer.
With a birdie on the 9th hole at Oceanside Country Club in Ormond Beach, Florida, seventh-grader Alexa Pano from Lake Worth, Florida moved to six under par total and took a one-shot lead into the final nine holes on the final day of the event. It was fascinating to watch as Alexa went shot-for-shot with players eight or nine years older than she is, but she was unfazed by it all.
“I prefer competing against college players, so it really feels normal to me. I’ve been doing it since I was 9, so it is something I enjoy,” she said following the event. “I know I have to play well to win against them, and that’s the most fun in golf, you playing well, and them playing well. You go after it.”
Alexa did not win the SALLY this year. She finished tied for 3rd, three shots behind the winner Kelly Grassel, a senior at the University of Florida who plans to turn pro after graduation this year, but Alexa came close to becoming the youngest player ever to win the storied women’s amateur event. The Sally was first played at Oceanside C C in 1926. Past SALLY (South Atlantic Women’s Amateur Championship) champions include some of the best-known names in the history of American women’s amateur golf and the LPGA. Players like Patty Berg and Babe Zaharias as well as current LPGA stars like Cristie Kerr, Jessica Korda, Lexi Thompson, and Brooke Henderson, all won the SALLY trophy in their young amateur days.
Alexa says there is nothing she would rather be doing than playing in golf tournaments. Her father Rick saw her win her first event when she was six years old and soon realized she had a special talent for the game.
“Her passion for the game, how much she enjoys playing and competing is off the charts. Not many kids, or college players for that matter, have more fun out there than her” he said. “What I have noticed is that she loves the big moment. In football terms, she wants the ball in her hands on 4th and goal. Alexa was born with an ability to go to a second level of concentration many times in very big moments, which is why many who watch her come away amazed at her focus.”
Alexa has already won dozens of events in kids and junior golf and has played all over the United States. She qualified last year for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Four-Ball championships. This year she will try again, for the fourth time, to qualify for the U. S. Women’s Open.
She will also be returning to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, this spring to compete in the annual kids’ Drive, Chip, and Putt competition which has become a highlight of the televised coverage of Masters week. It will be her third time competing in the event at the Masters. She won the competition last year in the 10-11-year-old girl’s category.
Alexa is home schooled, which gives her the flexibility to travel to so many events throughout the year. Her father says homeschooling was her decision.
“If she could have things her way she would compete every week. She loves tournaments. Right now, though, I’m going to cut her back to two a month maximum, but yes, that’s what she enjoys doing the most in her life,” he says. “Away from golf, she is just your average 12-year-old girl. She’s never seen a mall she didn’t like. She likes music and her friends. In a group of nongolfer children, you’d never know what she does daily as she is one of the kids, though she is a bit more mature than most her age.”
For the past 15 months, Alexa has been working with golf instructor Spencer Graham III. Graham is the Director of Instruction at the Junior Golf Performance Academy at Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Florida.
“She is a superstar in the making,” he said of Alexa as he followed his young student on the course during the final round of the SALLY in Ormond Beach. He has watched her grow five and a half inches over the last 12 months (she is now 5’8”) She now, amazingly, hits her driver close to 240 yards off the tee.
“We have moved from using a very hand driven swing, that produced a high draw, to more of a body driven swing release that produces a much lower trajectory and power fade,” he said from his academy in Naples. “Along with her growth of five inches in the past year, her swing consistency keeps getting better and better, and the distance increase is dramatically longer. Fairways, greens, and scrambling have improved due to the swing changes. I’m also beginning to work with her on shaping her shots better at will so that she owns her entire game. In addition, we have focused on her pre-shot routine, which has become much more focused.”
Graham thinks Alexa may grow a few more inches, and as she gets stronger, she has the potential to be among the longest hitters in the women’s game. He says her averaging 270 yards or more off the tee is very realistic in a few years. He coaches some of the very best junior golfers in the country, both boys, and girls. When asked about Alexa’s long-term potential in the game he puts her in a league of her own.
“My personal belief is that if she continues to enjoy playing the game as much as she does, works hard on improving and reinforcing her fundamentals, doesn’t get caught up in too many swing thoughts or techniques, she could become a Hall of Fame player sooner than most people believe.”
Graham believes she has the potential to become the best woman player ever.
“I think she will not only be the number one player in the world on the LPGA but that she will win at least three majors before she turns 20. I don’t take my opinion lightly, nor do I offer my predictions based on me being her coach. I truly believe that we are looking at the best player, quite possibly of all time.”
What does Alexa think about Graham’s work with her?
“He’s an excellent instructor. Every time I leave the lesson tee I feel I’ve left as a better player. Spencer goes over and above for me, and I appreciate that a lot.”
It is a long way from being a 12-year-old amateur sensation to becoming a player on the LPGA, not to mention “the best of all time,” but this talented young woman seems to be on track to many more amazing accomplishments in golf in the future.
Remember her name. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Alexa Pano in the years to come.
Dave Andrews is a retired television news reporter. He is also an avid golfer who has become a fan of the LPGA and the Symetra Tour.
Dave is the author of Pops and Sunshine, a novel and screenplay about a young woman pro’s dream and struggles to make it to the LPGA. The screenplay has been optioned by a production company in Hollywood. The novel is available at Kindle Ebooks.
Follow Dave online on Twitter @PopsandSunshine