Hardin sharpens focus for repeat

Girls' Junior champ has dropped basketball

August 01, 1999|By John W. Stewart | John W. Stewart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Leigh Ann Hardin who will defend her U.S. Girls' Junior championship this week is different from the player of a year ago. The other competitors, if they don't know already, won't want to hear it.

All 156 players had checked in at the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club by late yesterday, and will have their final practice round today. Hardin confined her work to the practice areas, but plans on a full round this morning.

Hardin, 17, from Martinsville, Ind., and appearing in the championship for the fifth successive year, believes she is a better player now than last year.

That's a scary thought, considering that, in addition to this title, she won the Maxfli/PGA Junior, four other events, competed abroad and was an American Junior Golf Association All-American for the second straight year.

As is often the case, however, the improvement did not come without a price.

An all-state high school basketball player who grew up believing she would play the sport in college, Hardin, 5 feet 10, chose not to play her senior season.

"It was really hard," she says, "but I decided to play golf the year round. Besides, my parents didn't want me to get hurt. The decision was in my best interests."

Given Indiana winters, it was no surprise she struggled early in the season, but still considered it a good choice.

Earlier this month, she showed how far she has come when she became the third golfer (second girl) in AJGA history to win tournaments in three successive weeks. She missed in a bid for four when she tied for fifth in the Rolex Tournament of Champions.

Still, she has 13 career AJGA wins to place fifth on the all-time list. Grace Park and Kellee Booth lead with 18 apiece. Booth's mother, the former Jane Bastanchury, whose amateur credentials included three Curtis Cup teams, is here for the tournament as a USGA committeewoman.

"I think I'm better than last year," Hardin said. "I made some swing changes, and I'm swinging completely better. I'm hitting it longer, and my game is a lot stronger."

Besides the three wins, she has been in the top five in most of her other events, and sees the performances as a real confidence booster.

Another thing she sees is a correlation between basketball and golf. "I'm a competitive person, and a free throw is like a short putt. You feel the pressure, yet it's something you think you should make every time. If you miss, it's like throwing it away, missing an easy opportunity."

Hardin admits having thought a lot about being a national champion at 16 and her position as defending champion.

"I know it will be tough, because only two have done it [Judy Eller in 1957-58, and Hollis Stacy, 1969-70-71]. Since I've already won, I won't have the pressure of having to win it in my final year. I know 16 was young to win this title, but when the opportunity is there, you have to take advantage of it."

Hardin followed her three-tournament sweep with a week off, then tied for fifth in last week's Betsy Rawls tournament in Wilmington, Del. Of the championship, she says, "I'm ready to go."

International flavor

The field includes representatives from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and New Zealand. The five-player Mexican delegation includes four from Guadalajara Country Club, and that's more players than 36 of the states with players here.

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