By Brian Paglia
Ola freshman Haley Austin was mad at herself. She even cried, she'll admit. Hard not to for a 15-year-old who almost bettered North Clayton sophomore Mariah Stackhouse, arguably the most talented amateur female golfer in the country, at the Region 4-AAAA championship.
But as she thought about that round of golf this past Thursday -- when she gave up a three-stroke lead, tied Stackhouse with a 1-under 70 and then lost on the second playoff hole -- Austin recounted the series of events with surprising percipience for a freshman.
"I got up three strokes on her at one point and then I was up two going into 16," Austin said. "I was 3-under, she was 1-under and I choked. I had a double-bogey, so we were tied. And on 17 she made a bogey and I made par and I made her make a birdie for her to tie me.
"Then we went into a playoff. The first hole we bogeyed and the second hole I three-putted and lost. It was pretty bad."
It was an unfortuitous four holes of golf, but the 20 holes combined proved productive in far more ways. The Lady Mustangs won the region championship and qualified for Monday's Class AAAA championship at Jekyll Island Golf Club.
And Austin gained an invaluable amount of experience and confidence. She had never played in a playoff before and felt that pressure. She had never kept up with Stackhouse, though they've played against each other for two years now.
"I'm not as nervous anymore," Austin said. "When I played in the playoff round, I was nervous as could be. I've never been in that pressure situation with her. But it does come in handy, because when you're out there all the time you don't have that gut feeling where you're nervous and scared of hitting in front of somebody. I just love playing in front of people and showing what I can do."
Said Stackhouse: "I think she played really well that day. It's important to play well when you get to region and I think she played excellent. That was the time to play well, and she did."
Austin and Stackhouse present a unique juxtaposition.
Stackhouse has been called "the next Tiger Woods," been interviewed by CNN, won the Georgia state women's match play championship at 13, won the women's state amateur title at 14 and played in the Mojo 6 tournament in Jamaica with veterans of the LPGA Tour.
Oh, and she is the defending Class AAAA champion when, as a freshman, she shot a 73 at Dalton Country Club to win by one stroke last year.
"I've been playing really well," Stackhouse said. "I'm starting to have a lot of things come together for me right now, and so I'm really just trying to stay focused. I guess it's a matter of staying focused to get better."
Then consider Austin. While Stackhouse began learning golf when she was 2, Austin didn't start until she was 10. While Stackhouse has earned recognition with impressive finishes at numerous junior tournaments, Austin is quietly developing in anonymity.
But her development has been rapid. She averaged a score of 45 for nine holes as an eighth grader playing on the varsity team. By the beginning of the season she had shaved almost 10 strokes off her average. By the region championship, she was averaging in the low- to mid-70s.
"I've been practicing really hard," Austin said. "You've got to stay confident in your game and just practice as much as you can."
Then came her remarkable round against Stackhouse.
"She was so looking forward to that it wasn't even funny," Ola golf coach Steve Sewell said. "She was ready to play. She just played great that day. They both did.
"That was the type of thing the LPGA hopes they get on the final day of a tournament when they're on TV, the top two players going shot for shot."
Now, Austin believes she can go shot for shot with the defending state champ.
"I would love to go down there and be right there," Austin said. "I would love that."
But Stackhouse is eager to defend her title.
"It would definitely mean a lot," Stackhouse said. "Winning as a freshman was a big statement. I definitely want to come back and try to defend that one."