By Ellen Port’s standards, she hasn’t been playing great golf this summer.
“I don’t think it could get any worse,” said Port, who will be seeking her eighth United States Golf Association championship when the 32nd U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur begins Saturday at Norwood Hills Country Club.
Just how bad has it been?
In August at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Kingston Springs, Tenn., Port shot 71 and 72 to become the second-oldest player, at 56, to ever reach the match play portion of the event. She was one of only nine players in the 156-woman field who were 25 or older.
In July at the U.S. Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club, where World Golf Hall of Famers Laura Davies and Juli Inkster finished 1-2, Port averaged 4 over par in four rounds to place 33rd in the 120-player field.
We should all be so bad. But Port’s standards are pretty high.
“I was out of sync, and my misses were uncharacteristically poor and too frequent,” Port said. “I had to grind a lot to get the results I did this summer. But I’ve been working on it, and I feel like I’m bringing a pretty good version of myself into the tournament.”
The other 131 players to tee it up on the West Course at Norwood Hills will have to be on their games, then, to keep Port from hoisting the Mildred Prunaret Trophy for the fifth time. Port also has won three U.S. Senior Women’s Amateurs (2012, 2013, 2016), leaving her one title shy of tying Joanne Gunderson Carner — another Hall of Famer — for the most USGA championships won by a woman.
The Mid-Amateur, for men and women, differs from U.S. Amateurs only in age restrictions. Because the U.S. Amateurs are dominated by college-age players, many of whom eventually turn professional, the USGA saw a need for championships staged for what some would call “true” amateurs. In 1981 for the men and 1987 for the women, the Mid-Ams began being staged for players age 25 and over on the opening day of the championship. This year there were 398 Women’s Mid-Am entries, pared down in qualifying and exemptions to the 132-player field.
Kelsey Chugg, 27, of Utah will attempt to retain her title as one of 11 USGA champions in the event. Seven Missouri residents have qualified, including Kallie Harrison, 32, a Norwood Hills member, first-time qualifier, and physician who went to medical school at St. Louis University.
Norwood Hills will be set at 6,176 yards for the par-72 layout, situated just north of Lutheran North High School on Lucas and Hunt Road. Built in 1922 and one of the more historic courses in St. Louis, Norwood has hosted a slew of metropolitan, state and professional events, including the 1948 PGA Championship, won by Ben Hogan.
Stroke-play rounds Saturday and Sunday will cut the field to 64 players, and match play begins Monday. The second and third rounds of match play are Tuesday, then quarterfinals and semifinals Wednesday. The two players who reach Thursday’s final will have played seven rounds over five days.
That gives younger legs an advantage, but Port is confident she can keep pace.
“I’ve played some of my best golf (in recent years),” Port said, noting that she’s won four of her USGA titles since 2011. “I have so much experience to draw on. I have a better short game now, better in the bunkers.
“It’s very noticeable now how far the girls hit the ball, but I always say I hit it far enough. I can get on all the holes in regulation. I’m still viable. I have not let (slowing down) really enter my mind. I know that down the road, probably five years or so, I’ll have to fight it more. Now, I might be hitting a 5-wood into a green instead of a 6-iron, but I can hit a 5-wood straight.”
Before refocusing her game this summer, Port took more time off the course than usual in the past three years prior because of her obligations at Washington University, where she coached the women’s golf team. Her focus was on refining the games of her college players and on recruiting during the summer rather than on keeping her game “efficient,” the word Port uses to define her style when playing well.
She also spent a lot of time with a close friend who was sick, and family time with her two college-age children: Katie, a freshman at Arkansas, and Drew, a junior at Tulsa.
Now feeling like her game is on the verge of being Ellen Port-good, Port credits Bellerive director of golf Brian Fogt for “helping me have a better understanding of the golf swing in my own tendencies so that I can self-correct.” She plans to play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur in October in Vero Beach, Fla., and might even have her eye on the record nine USGA titles held by Tiger Woods and Bob Jones, although she won’t say so.
“Just like I don’t want to say the R word (retire), I don’t want to say the W word (win),” Port said. “But since I’ve won four of these, I know I can do it. It’s impossible not to think that you can win this. So yeah, I know that on any given day my game is still viable, that I can go head to head with anybody in the field.
“My game is in reasonable enough shape.”