The Statesman Interview: Alabama’s Kristen Gillman on golf, future

It’s been four years since Kristen Gillman — then 16 years old — pulled off one of the biggest upsets in U.S. women’s amateur golf history.

Her performance at the Junior PGA Championships was nothing short of astounding. She shot a 16 under par to break a 15-year-old record, winning the tournament by 11 strokes. A week later she beat Canada’s Brooke Henderson, the top amateur in the world at the time, in the championship match at the U.S. Women’s Amateur at the Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y.

Now a junior-to-be at the University of Alabama, Gillman is a two-time Women’s Golf Coaches Association All-American and the No. 7-ranked amateur in the world (No. 4 in the United States). She recently helped the U.S. complete the biggest blowout in Curtis Cup history.

As for individual accolades — something Gillman says she’s “not really concerned with” — the 2016 Class 6A state champion from Lake Travis High School became the third player to go 5-0 in match play since the Curtis Cup format changed to three days in 2008.

This came just weeks after she made her first professional cut in an LPGA event at the U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek Country Club in Shoal Creek, Ala., which is 66 miles east of Tuscaloosa, where she attends college. She finished the tournament tied for 27th at 5 over par (293) after opening with a low round of 70 that put her in seventh place.

“I got off to a great start,” Gillman said. “I think at one point I was in, like, fourth place. I’ve never been in a position like that, so it was a new experience for me to see my name on a leaderboard at a major championship. I learned how to play with the nerves and the pressure and not put too much emphasis on the rest of the rounds.”

As for college, she has been an All-SEC first-team selection twice, holds Alabama school records for rounds under par in a season with 22 and low round (54) and was ranked the No. 8 women’s college player by Golfweek this past season.

And at the NCAA Championships, Gillman finished tied for seventh at 1 under par (287).

All before her 21st birthday, which is in September.

Gillman is gearing up for the U.S. Women’s Amateur next month in Kingston Sprints, Tenn.

On Sunday, Gillman, along with Texas’ Sophia Schubert and Kaitlyn Papp, helped Team USA win the Arnold Palmer Cup in France.

Up next, Gillman will travel to Japan to play in the ANA Princess Cup on the LPGA Tour of Japan, beginning Wednesday.

With two more years left at Alabama, Gillman said she knows she’s about to face an important life decision: Join the LPGA Tour or give up the game she loves and begin a career in communications.

The American-Statesman caught up with Gillman recently to talk about her amateur golf career, the friendships she’s made and what’s ahead for her this summer:

What have you been up to since we last chatted with you at the state tournament a couple of years ago?

(Laughing) Lots of golf. In the past two years (at Alabama), I’ve won a couple of tournaments, our team won runner-up at the NCAAs, which was cool, and placing 27th at the U.S. Women’s Open was great, and the Curtis Cup was fun because I got to represent my country, which is always a big honor.

When you look up and see your name in the top 10 at the U.S. Women’s Open, what’s going through your head? Surely, y ou’ve felt nerves before at other tournaments you’ve played in.

Not like this. This is different. You’re playing with the top golfers in the world. You look over and see Lexi Thompson and Inbee Park and Michelle Wie, who I grew up watching play, and see your name with theirs. It’s pretty cool, but it’s not the same level of nerves.

Did you feel that you had a little advantage since Shoal Creek is so close to Tuscaloosa?

We’ve played that course a few times, but it’s not really a home course for Alabama. Having played it definitely gave me more comfort. I don’t think it was an advantage because the course was so wet. It was like playing a whole different course.

You then achieved another accomplishment by becoming the third golfer to go 5-0 at the Curtis Cup. Did you feed off the energy from the U.S. Open?

I don’t know, really. I think it was more playing with a team. I was lucky enough to get to play all five matches. Each day, two people had to sit out, and I got to play all five matches. I had a lot of good partners, and it was a lot of fun because it was a team effort because in four of my matches, I had a partner playing with me. So it was a lot of fun to win it with them.

Do you enjoy four-ball play more than stroke play as an individual?

Yes. I really like it because you have to strategize a lot more and it’s a lot easier to get into the game because you have a partner there and you’re helping each other.

Sophia Schubert was your teammate at the Curtis Cup. How’s your relationship with her?

I’m pretty close with her. I’ve gotten to know her a lot the last couple of years in junior golf. I want to beat her and she wants to beat me, like any golfer would, but we’re friends and have a good time playing against each other.

How’s Alabama treating you?

The team atmosphere is a lot like Lake Travis. I don’t think you can find a team that got along better than we did at Lake Travis, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot about my game, and I’m fortunate enough to have really good teammates. We’ve all been able to push each other and get along well.

Do you still keep in touch with Kaitlyn Papp? Is there a rivalry between you two?

I would say it’s a friendly rivalry. I’d say she’s my best friend. Whenever I’m home, we always hang out with each other. When we’re on the golf course, I think we aren’t trying to beat each other, but we both want to win the tournament we’re playing in. Whenever we are off the golf course, we’re best friends.

You still have two more years at Alabama. Do you plan to turn pro after you’re done, or is that even still a consideration?

I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do. I have a lot of thinking still to do in the next year, but I haven’t quite made a decision.

Say you don’t go pro after college. What would complete your golf career?

Winning a national championship. That’s our goal. We got so close this past year.

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