When Patrick Clemente sent emails to tournament organizers asking them to consider giving his 14-year-old daughter Gianna exemptions into their Monday qualifiers, he kept expectations low. While easier to get than the two golden tickets sponsors hold for invitees to go straight into their tournaments, qualifying spots are still valuable, especially for players with no LPGA Tour status.
Giving a Monday spot to a kid is a risk. Being a former college golfer at Youngstown State, Patrick knew this. He also knew his daughter, who was the youngest-ever winner of the AJGA Ping Invitational at age 13 (one of the bigger events on the junior circuit), had a good shot.
At the time of those emails he didn’t know that Gianna would make it to the finals of the U.S. Girls Junior.
And no one in the Clemente family expected her to make history.
But sometimes history pops you in the mouth and you find yourself saying, “Holy smokes, did that really happen?”
That’s where they are now. On a sloppy, stop-and-start Monday - the kind of rain-drenched day where you have to be either in a great mood or a bad marriage to end up on a golf course - Gianna Clemente cruised around Kenwood Country Club in suburban Cincinnati in 7-under par to win the qualifier into the Kroger Queen City Championship presented by P&G. In so doing, Gianna became only the second player in history to Monday qualify into three consecutive LPGA Tour events. The other was Hee-Won Han way back in 2001. At the time, Han was 23. Clemente turned 14 in March.
“I think it kind of sunk in this morning,” Clemente said of her feat, although the magnitude of matching a record set seven years before she was born is not something you expect a 14-year-old to grasp.
“Last night was kind of crazy because we were trying to get back to the hotel and stuff,” Gianna said. “We got back really late, and I didn’t have time to think about it. I woke up this morning and was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to another LPGA event today.’ It was kind of crazy this morning thinking about the last three weeks and the qualifiers.”
When she qualified for the CP Women’s Open at Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club, Clemente seemed like a novelty, another young teenager catching lightning in a bottle. But a week later, not far from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, she did it again, winning the qualifier into the Dana Open and beating a healthy crop of established Tour players.
This time, she lapped the field. Two of the 22 players who attempted to qualify on Monday broke 70. Clemente shot 65 and Pannarat Thanapolboonyaras shot 68.
“We were trying to get the lay of the land a little bit and get to know some people who could help us with exemptions in the future,” Gianna said of her and Patrick’s process. “Dad sent out some emails. Not all of them responded. But even the Monday qualifier exemptions we were happy with because I’d never done that before.
“My dad said, ‘I think you’re going to get into two.’ I ended up getting into three. They just happened to be back-to-back-to-back.
“CP was cool because we had four spots (available in the qualifier, instead of the standard two). I didn’t have to shoot super low. At the Dana, I played well, too. Obviously, (Kroger Queen City) was my best. It was cool to be in all three, much less to qualify into all three.”
She hasn’t made a cut yet. That’s the next goal.
“It’s a little less overwhelming now,” she said. “It’s a little less stressful, especially with my dad here to help. It has become less overwhelming as the weeks have gone on.
“The biggest surprise for me, honestly, is how casual it is out here, especially in the practice rounds. Everybody just does their own thing. Some people pay attention to me because I’m kind of young for this. But I was expecting it to be, not necessarily strict, although that’s the best word I can use, but maybe more formal. In the end, it’s just people out playing golf.”
Not all of them are playing as well as Clemente. Long time agent Jay Burton, who signed legends like Laura Davies and Lisalotte Neumann when they were teenagers, said of Clemente, “I’ve seen a lot of young teenagers. And not since Lydia (Ko) have I seen a kid that I’ve said, ‘Yeah, that girl can make it.’ But I see the same thing in Gianna. She just has a poise and maturity in her game and in her course management that you don’t find in 14-year-olds.”
From Cincinnati, Clemente heads to France for the Amundi Junior Evian Cup. Then it’s down to southwest Florida where the family spends seven months a year.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again and getting back to what I would consider a ‘normal’ tournament,” she said. “It’s going to be fun to go back. I don’t want to call it a transition, because at the end of the day, we’re just playing golf. But I haven’t played an actual, regular junior golf tournament in a while. I’m looking forward to that.”