Then 11, the rising middle-schooler became the third youngest player in the 100-plus year history of the tournament, thrusting her into the national spotlight.
“I remember there being a camera in my face all the time and people coming up to me asking if I was the 11-year-old,” said Clemente, who shot 80-81 and missed the cut in her first USGA championship event. “It was definitely a new experience. I didn’t really know what was going on. I had no idea what I was doing.”
On Monday, the 14-year-old Estero resident is returning to the U.S. Women’s Am, set for Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, where she’ll still be one of the field’s youngest players. Now, however, it’s her game, not her age, that’s attracting attention.
Clemente has finished fourth or better in five tournaments so far in 2022. That includes runner-up finishes at the Girls Rolex Championship in June and two weeks ago at the U.S. Girls Junior Championship.
That performance at the Girls’ Junior left Clemente pleasantly surprised and ultimately disappointed. With little experience in match play, she freely admitted she didn’t expect to string together the five consecutive head-to-head victories that put her into the championship round against a former playing partner, Yana Wilson of Henderson, Nevada.
In the final 36-hole match, Clemente was 1-up after 26 holes but saw Wilson win four of the next eight holes to claim the title.
— USGA (@USGA) July 23, 2022
“It’s a little disappointing to make it that far and come up just short,” said Clemente, who as of last week was No. 123 in the Women's World Amateur Golf Rankings. “But looking back on it now, even though it still hurts, you just have to take out the positives. I didn’t think I would make it as far as I did, and I can’t really complain about winning five matches. I played good golf and I had a really great time and that’s all that matters.”
Naples golf instructor Spencer Graham, who’s been Clemente’s swing coach for seven years, said she’s just starting to learn how good a golfer she can be.
“At times, she still doesn’t believe it,” said Graham, who operates his Junior Golf Performance Academy out of Quail Creek Country Club. “She’s still insecure as to how good she really is. In some ways, that’s a good thing because it drives her. She’s got that x-factor that very, very few players have.”
Graham said he gets dozens of calls each week from the nation’s top college coaches about Clemente, who won’t start high school until this fall.
“When you have that much early success it certainly isn’t an easy thing,” he said. “It takes a great deal of balance and staying focused, not trying to get ahead of yourself. It’s a long-term process.”
What helps that process is the relationship that exists between Graham, Clemente, and Clemente’s father Patrick, a former golfer at Youngstown State who is his daughter’s primary golf coach. In fact, the prevailing reason the family now spends the majority of the year in Southwest Florida is for Gianna to be able to spend more time honing her swing with Graham.
“We all work as a team,” Clemente said. “It’s not just my swing coach and just my dad. They’re both my coaches so it’s nice to have both of them around.”
Like the U.S. Junior, the Women’s Am employs a match play format, which can make setting expectations a futile endeavor due to the uncertainty of head-to-head play. However, Clemente said her recent success along with her previous turn in the tournament’s spotlight should help her this week.
“When I was 11, I wasn’t really focused about place or making the cut or winning matches or whatever. I just was there and that was good enough.
“We’ll see what happens. But now I’m definitely looking to do a little bit more than just be there.”
Connect with Dan DeLuca: @News-PressDan (Twitter), firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: US Women's Amateur Championship: Gianna Clemente looks to make history again