Minutes before Kamille Dimayuga, a senior from Buena Park, Calif., was set to tee off to defend her girls’ individual title in the 2020 High School Golf National Invitational in Pinehurst, the skies opened up.
Dimayuga, who is committed to play at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, had just gone through an efficient warm-up, hitting beautiful, high draws through the bag. She was excited to be playing at Pinehurst, her first time there, and didn’t appear nervous, though, when asked, confessed she was.
“The nerves don’t go away, it’s just a matter of how I handle them,” she said. What are her tricks? Dimayuga giggled. “I just grew up a little bit.” Then she collected herself and, on command, seemed to do that very thing: “I don’t fear making mistakes. I accept that’s going to happen. It’s how you recover that defines you as a player.”
Most of the 104 girls competing in the first round of the three-day tournament were already on the course when the rain came, but those who weren’t scrambled for cover under the wraparound veranda of Pinehurst No. 8’s clubhouse. The outburst was fierce and sudden, caused by a band of Hurricane Isaias sweeping across the North Carolina sandhills. Torrents poured off the roof, slapping heavy waterfalls against the pavement. Water pooled on the nearby 16th and 18th greens. An assistant pro stepped out and sounded an air horn to summon players back in, though it was unfathomable anyone would leave whatever shelter they’d found in the tempest.
Dimayuga’s defense would have to wait.
Less than two miles away, at the No. 6 course, the boys were in a similar weather predicament. But the deluge didn’t dampen the mood of the team that Mark Nanpei had brought with him from Father Dueñas Memorial School in Guam, high school champions three years running. They were happy just to be there.
“In Guam, we don’t have the tournaments needed to get the exposure for these kids,” said Nanpei, who directs the remote Pacific island’s junior golf program. (There are a total of seven or eight teams there, depending on interest.) Several boys had dreams of playing college golf in the United States. “We’re trying to create situations so they have a better opportunity to get somebody to see them.”
How many college recruiters typically make the 12-hour trip from the West Coast to Guam? “Zero,” Nanpei said. “I mean, zero scouts go there.”
The team wore burgundy golf shirts with gold accents. Two of the five players had just arrived in Pinehurst, but the other three had been traveling with their families throughout July on a trans-America odyssey of tournaments from the Bay Area to the Carolinas. Pinehurst was their Ithaca, the emerald port of their continental visit. Let it rain.
The High School Golf National Invitational nearly didn’t happen this year. It was originally scheduled for June, and the organizers planned to cancel the event after the coronavirus outbreak and concerns over safety. An outpouring of pleas and encouragement from parents and coaches persuaded them to reschedule it for the first week of August. For the country’s top individuals and teams, the invitational was an important showcase, yet even amid the pandemic it was but one in a busy summer of high-caliber junior tournaments. For others, however, it was prom, and homecoming, a revival of golf after lost seasons and a chance to play on hallowed ground in Pinehurst. Though originally planned for over 500 players, this gathering of 350 high schoolers from 40 states was a show of resilience, and one more example of golf’s ability to not just endure but thrive in this novel moment.
The second-year tournament was the vision of Kris Hart, founder of NextGenGolf, an organization started in 2010 to promote collegiate club golf for players who wish to stay formally connected to the game beyond high school. In 2017, Hart, director of operations Matt Weinberger and manager Chris Noble, created the National High School Golf Association to promote and network tens of thousands of teams from 49 states, keeping them updated on tournaments and providing college and scholarship information. (Alaska doesn’t offer high school golf.)
They were amazed that such an organization never existed before. “We felt high school golf didn’t get the love and recognition it deserved,” Hart says. “There’s always been so much emphasis on junior golf and on the ‘best of the best,’ but I think for us, as an industry, high school needs to be more important.” The overwhelming majority of the 220,000 participants don’t go on to play collegiately, he says. “How do we ensure that those kids are staying in our game?”
Any state champion—team or medalist—earns automatic eligibility for the National Invitational, making it, in essence, high school golf’s national championship. Whereas junior associations like the American Junior Golf Association sponsor performance-based competitions geared toward high-level individuals seeking college exposure, the NHSGA’s focus is on school-based teams and players with the goal of creating enthusiasm for recreational golf. Naturally there’s crossover between nationally ranked juniors and state titleholders, but most here weren’t thinking of winning—this might have been their first out-of-state tournament, or first multi-day event, or the first against elite competition. Some from small classifications might have won a nine-hole tournament, or with a score of 95, or beaten only a handful of players or teams. Every state has its own championship format, and all winners their own stories.
“That’s the point,” Noble says. “At the end of the day we have a competitive golf tournament that’s going to identify the blue-chip players, and we want that. But we also have kids that are shooting 110 or 120. I really believe this is potentially the most diverse, inclusive national junior golf tournament that exists. Many kids may never go on to play in a tournament of this size again.”
“It’s way more competitive than what I’m used to,” said Brady Weglowski, a slender sophomore from Mattapoisett, Mass., an old whaling town about 90 minutes south of Boston, who was preparing for a late tee time on the No. 6 course. “This is teams from across the country.”
“Brady’s a little nervous because the boys here are so much older than he is,” his mother, Kelly, said.
Brady scrutinized the line of boys on the range: “All these guys hit the ball so much farther than me.” It was true. There might have been kids in the invitational who were younger or smaller, but most looked like safeties and running backs and had 70, 80, 100 pounds on Brady, who possibly could have snuck into the flyweight division— after a big meal.
I noticed the tip of a scar peeking over the middle button of his golf shirt. We-glowski was born with a number of congenital heart defects, and in his short life has undergone over 20 procedures, including multiple open-heart surgeries. The last lettering by Chris Piascik open-heart was the previous December; the first was when he was two months old, to insert a pulmonary valve because his tiny heart didn’t have one. He went into cardiac arrest afterward. It was during the evening, and Kelly was sleeping in the hospital room, on the other side of a closed curtain. She suddenly heard nurses rushing in—one shouted “Code!” and soon the small bedside area was a commotion of doctors, surgeons, instruments. Brady flatlined, and they had to do CPR directly onto his organs because his chest was still open. That’s when Kelly screamed.
“Oh, no!” a nurse yelled out. “Mom’s been here the whole time!”
The doctors put Brady on life support and told Kelly and Brady’s father, Marc, that the infant was in God’s hands. Brady, of course, remembers nothing of this. He only thinks about playing golf, but the onset of COVID-19 and the recency of his latest surgery initially led the family to cancel their flights to North Carolina. After consultations, and reflection, they decided it was too important to miss, and they drove the 12 hours to Pinehurst.
All around No. 6, strings of parents and coaches flowed with the groupings, strolling in the shade of the pines or riding in carts on the paved paths. A pensive mist followed them. Some tallied the action on their own scorecards, and some sat on folding golf stools when the players arrived at greens. They watched silently, conscripted to states of pure observation, each swing of the club an irretrievably turned page of fate. They seemed at pains to keep their own counsel, helpless to assist or intervene as the kids forged through struggle and success, the adults hoping they’d done enough to prepare them for both.
The players were locked in their routines, shooting yardages with range finders and meticulously lining up putts. If they were sensitive at all to the disruptions of a suddenly inscrutable world, this was where they could escape. Kale Abbott, a senior from Utah, played with the joyous cool you want to see in a 17-year-old. Eight boys from his high school team made the trip. His father, Kevin, following in the background, said that while the kids were having fun, the uncertain question of their future loomed, especially with coronavirus disrupting scholarships and extending eligibility of current collegiate players.
“I know there are a lot of people right now with much bigger problems,” Kevin Abbott said, “but for a high school senior, not knowing what’s going to happen next year is difficult.”
Brady Weglowski was on his sixth hole when I caught up to his group. “Heart” is an appropriate metaphor for him—he plays with it on his sleeve. Though he’d just made a nifty par, he was still steaming from his 10-7 start and was in no mood to suffer Marc’s humorous dad messages of encouragement. Kelly watched Brady play with what might be described as protective anguish swaddled in bursts of hope, powerless to defuse his frustrations though they afflicted her in the same proportion. I perceived in her a ferocious, unextinguishable desire to will into existence better outcomes. You’d have it, too, if you’d once watched your child die and come back to life.
EARNING MORE THAN A HEADCOVER
Kamille Dimayuga passed the first test of her ability to recover from adversity. She’d waited out the storm and made two gutsy upand-down par saves to begin her first round, then cruised around No. 8 with a 71, one under par and just a shot off the lead.
The next day near the 15th green of the No. 9 course, an eclectic Jack Nicklaus design roaming an upscale neighborhood, her mother, Ramona, watching from a cart, glanced at the scorecard she was keeping: “She’s even on the day,” Ramona told me. Kamille’s older brother, Lawrence, took her to the golf course for the first time when she was 9. Kamille loved one of his puppy headcovers, and he told her when she was good enough to beat him, she could have it. Six months later, it was hers. She named it Rory, and it still keeps her driver company.
We looked up just as Dimayuga drilled a breaking 35-foot birdie putt, tying her for the lead. Typically among the longer girls in high school golf, she appeared in full command and working toward the inevitable . . . until she missed three consecutive par putts to close the round, all inside six feet. Still, she was just one behind the leader heading into the final day.
The girls began to stream in from the course, fleets of pushcarts sailing into harbor, open mast-like umbrellas propped up to ward off the sun. They waited in groups to verbalize their hole scores, social distancing guidelines in place, no post-round merriment, no leader boards.
Roycee Southerland and Taylor Tanpoco, juniors from Nevada, had also just finished their round. (Their team would eventually finish fourth; a teammate, Kirstin Angosta, finished T-2.) If you’ve spent time around top junior players, you’re aware of this little trick: On the course, they are mature, assured athletes in possession of often majestic skills; once they leave the course, they transform back to age, all soft faces and teen spirit. Golf was a dimensional toggle, a portal between a terrestrial game and a multiverse of experience and wonder.
“I love it here,” Roycee said.
Taylor: “This place is the dream.”
Roycee: “This course is absolutely amazing.”
Taylor: “For golfers especially. Obviously we’re from Vegas, so we don’t get trees as tall as this.”
Roycee: “Or even pine trees.”
Taylor: “So it’s kind of amazing when you’re walking down the fairway.”
Roycee: “It’s just a different vibe.”
Taylor: “I mean, even the water is different.”
Roycee: “It’s nicer!”
Tanpoco looked up and around, as if taking in the scene for the first time.
Taylor: “I feel like Pinehurst is like Augusta for juniors.”
The boys were at No. 8, a demanding but scenic course akin to a nature preserve. Afternoon storms the day before had suspended play, and now, to catch up, foursomes were packed onto the course in ways it could not accommodate. The landscape resembled a transportation hub, the intersecting holes swarming with players, carts, coaches and families. Three hours into a seven-hour shotgun round, most had played perhaps eight holes.
“That’s better than the nine hours we were on pace for,” a young man waiting on a tee quipped. Perhaps it was familiarity with long tournament rounds, or maybe the humid 90-degree heat had wilted resistance, but the outlook was one of acceptance. We would endure. Time is irrelevant to the emotionally invested.
I paused near a green to watch a group putt. A round, affable man stood next to me. He seemed to be affiliated with a team from Louisiana.
“Course management,” he said.
“It don’t matter how good you hit it if you hit it in the wrong place.”
“You said it.”
We watched one of his players make bogey.
“Course management,” the man said. “That’s what I teach ’em.”
Three groups were backed up at the par-3 eighth playing off a wooded hillside. The kids lounged under the pines, mingling with parents and other onlookers. One boy, laying on his back, attempted to balance an alignment stick on his nose. Some were texting and others had shut their eyes. It was like a scene from a Manet, but with golf bags instead of picnic baskets. I counted 23 people in the shady glen. The titanium report of distant drivers came intermittently, occasionally followed by the clack of a ball hitting a tree. Another foursome with coterie arrived. “Take a load off ,” someone said.
Off to the side, I noticed Kelly Weglowski in her cart. She said Brady was having a better day and held up the scorecard she was keeping: mostly bogeys and pars. I continued to move through the course, in reverse, nodding to parents as they passed, foursome after foursome, limber swings, the sound of balls hissing by. At the par-3 15th there was another stall-out: kids sitting, the small talk, the yo-yoing of a Titleist off a wedge. Brady Weglowski eventually came through, and I continued with him up the par-4 16th. His leaky drive narrowly cleared the duck marsh off the tee but left him far from the green. He played a metal club back to the fairway, then wedged up to a foot for his par. Course management.
ANOTHER DAY. ANOTHER SHOT
If Kamille Dimayuga was going to win back-to-back titles, she was going to have to catch and surpass Loralie Cowart, a senior from Georgia who shot 70-74 the first two rounds.
Dimayuga quickly dropped a shot after a bogey at the No. 6 course’s first hole but got it back with a birdie at the par-3 third after stuffing it to four feet. A charge felt inevitable. Then came an uncharacteristically loose stretch of holes and several more lost strokes. A bad-bounce double bogey at 10 put her six shots behind Cowart, who was even par to that point and showing no cracks.
Cowart might have had the largest following of the week, an entourage of family and friends that numbered five but seemed more because they were also the most vocal, her mother, Kim, driving ahead and clapping out the result of each shot. “They keep me motivated and positive,” Cowart later said. Dimayuga made matters interesting with two birdies coming home against a pair of Cowart bogeys, but Cow-art made emphatic birdies on 17 and 18. Though her spring season had been canceled, she was making up for lost golf on the summer circuit. After nine straight days of competition, she would leave Pinehurst with the glass vase trophy and another coveted keepsake, a souvenir keychain of the No. 2 course she bought in the golf shop.
Back at No. 9, the boys were warming up for their finale. The practice area before a high school tournament is a carnival of school colors, ethnicities, unique swings and ball flights and a certain nonchalance peppered with the most ordinary conversations. In other words, it’s kids hanging out. There’s electricity and a profound sense of promise. And gradually, as players depart to tee off, it dissipates and the energy fades until the range is void, all ships have launched, and everything becomes strangely empty.
The symbolism of this traveling show, of vacancy replacing the rhythms of normalcy, was not lost. But here it is not tragic. It’s hopeful. Because at the conclusion of this tournament—of any tournament, even a national championship—the kids would quickly turn their attention to the next one, or to the upcoming season. (Some schools have postponed their fall schedules; others are playing now.) With golf there’s always another shot and another day, and the carnival sets up again in the next town. That’s the entire point of what Kris Hart and his colleagues have been trying to achieve with the association and the High School Golf National Invitational—to ensure that for all of these kids there is always a next stop on the line.
“High school golf is about participation and family and being part of a team,” he says. “There are going to be some kids who are great, but there’s also a lot of kids who just love the game.” Hart wants golf to love them back.
For the Father Dueñas team the next stop, unfortunately, was distant. The boys had scored better than the previous two days and were in high spirits, gathered with their families around a large table of food and drink, but Mark Nanpei had mixed feelings. “I’m a little sad that they won’t have the opportunity to play in any more tournaments like this,” he said. “For a long time.” Tomorrow they’d all begin the long journey home to Guam.
The Weglowskis would also make a journey home the next morning. Brady said the experience and the competition were eye-opening—the individual medalist, Anawin Pikulthong of Arizona, finished 10 under par—but he relished the chance to return. All week I’d been thinking about the adversity he must overcome, the ongoing procedures, trying to find words that might put it into some transcendent golf context. Hadn’t everything he’d gone through given him access to an interior wisdom, a privileged understanding of this ungraspable game? “To be honest, it hasn’t,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’d be better without it or anything. I can’t play other sports because of it, but when it comes to golf, it’s nothing. No excuses.”
Kamille Dimayuga’s fondness for Pinehurst hadn’t diminished despite her unsatisfactory finish. “But I think I want to go back and play this course again,” she said. She wouldn’t have to wait long to take her next shot, nor would she have to go far. Just days later, playing Pinehurst No. 1, she became the lone qualifier for the Notah Begay III Jr. Golf National Championship this November, winning the event with a 66-71 (-3).
Kris Hart hopes to host the invitational at Pinehurst again, next June, under more ideal circumstances. If it can be coupled with the North & South Amateur, there’s a good chance college scouts will be there. “It would be really cool if some kid who is unknown wins and earns a college scholarship because of it, and we could say we had a small part in helping to fulfill a young person’s dreams,” he says. If you talk to many of the kids here, it’s already a dream. And a championship. And a stage. A place to play and another stop along the line.