An afternoon on the golf course is one of the most relaxing things in the world. The smell of the grass, the birds chirping and a quiet stroll through a landscaped course can be a beautiful experience. Or it can be if you’re good at golf, anyway. For most of the people who play golf for “fun,” it ends up being a terribly frustrating experience, chock full of humiliation and less-than-appropriate language.
St. Francis High School’s Ashley Noda and Briana Mao and former McClatchy High School’s Taryn Yee have probably never experienced such consternation on the links as the rest of us, for they are among the very best in the world at what they do. And on Labor Day weekend they travelled to Pebble Beach to put their skills to the test – again.
All three participated in the Home Care & Hospice First Tee Open, which took place Sept. 3-5, and was televised nationally on the Golf Channel.
Noda, 16, was just three years old when she took her first hacks. She received a set of lefty clubs for Christmas that year and was hooked immediately. She demanded of herself that she spend up to three hours a day at the driving range until her hands were raw and blistered. When she was eight years old she began to lap the competition, and at the time the competition was all boys. By the time she turned 12, Ashley was playing 18-hole tourneys – and winning them too.
Mao, 17, waited a little longer to get started. She was the ripe old age of six when she began her career.
“I never thought of it like I had talent (for golf),” Mao said. This coming from someone who qualified for a tournament across the country in Georgia at the age of six. She, too, got bigger and stronger and before long she was winning more tournaments than she knew what to do with.
Yee, 18, was a competitive tennis player before exchanging her racket for a three-iron. She didn’t start taking golf seriously until she was 10. She chose to play golf because it let her spend more time with her father. But as it turned out, she was a natural. With her parents working many hours, the Little Linkers program was something for Taryn to do with her time. It wasn’t long before she started dominating too.
Eventually all three girls joined the First Tee program. The First Tee of Greater Sacramento has a tour for boys and girls between the ages of 12 to18 called the Junior Tour. In 2009, the three girls applied for entry into a Champions Tour event to be played at Pebble Beach called the Home Care & Hospice First Tee Open. Juniors ages 15-18 from across the country applied. Participants were chosen based on “playing ability and comprehension of the life skills and core lessons learned through involvement with The First Tee,” according to a press release from The First Tee.
All three of the girls made the cut. They spent a week down at Pebble Beach soaking it all in and playing before a national audience. Pebble Beach is one of the most famous courses in the world, so naturally the immediate reactions were ones of awe and goose bump-inducing wonder for the three youngsters.
Mao recalled her reaction on the Tuesday morning before the event when she played her first practice round.
“Oh my gosh, I’m about to play Pebble Beach,” Mao said.
“It was amazing,” recalled Yee of her first impression of the course. “It never entered my mind that I would one day play Pebble Beach.”
“It is such a magical place,” said Noda. “It’s so different being on the course as opposed to watching on TV. It was a breathtaking experience.”
Last year, each junior golfer was paired with an amateur golfer and a professional from the Champions Tour (formerly the Senior PGA Tour) for the three day event. Noda was paired with Isao Aoki; Yee with Jim Thorpe and Mao with Mark O’Meara. They got to meet a number of the world’s most famous golfers such as Hale Irwin, Tom Kite and Peter Jacobsen.
The girls became friends with the golfers throughout the week. They talked about golf, family and everything in between. O’Meara even spent some time during a practice round to help Mao with her bunker play.
“Ever since then I have had no trouble with bunker shots,” she said.
One year later, the threesome was ready to go out and do it again. This year, 245 juniors from across the country applied for the event. Altogether, 74 boys and girls were chosen. Once again, the names Noda, Mao and Yee adorned the scoreboard at Pebble Beach.
This year, Mao was paired with Champions Tour professional O’Meara. Noda played with Champions Tour pro Mark Hulbert and Yee was paired with Dana Quigley.
“I’m really excited,” said Mao before leaving for Pebble Beach. “Ashley and I have been talking all week about how we can’t believe we get to go to Pebble Beach again. I can’t even concentrate on school right now.”
For the three day tournament, Mao and Noda each tied at 16 under par. Yee shot 68 and 72 the first two days of the tournament.
These girls, who have gotten to know each other over the past several years as opponents and friends, are ready for future challenges now that the Pebble Beach event is over. Who knows if the views will be as majestic and dumbfounding the next time around, but regardless of outcome, these three likely won’t hook a dozen balls into the water like the rest of us would.
Susan Laird contributed to this article.