May 09, 2013

Mariah Stackhouse wasn't aiming for history; she just wanted a successful 18 holes. The freshman teed off to little fanfare at the Peg Barnard Invitational on Feb. 17. Ten or so 20-somethings wearing T-shirts and flip-flops, plus her mother, spattered about the first tee to follow the 19-year-old's progress.

Then the birdies began to fall.

Stackhouse commenced her round with a bang, an eagle on No. 1. Followed by birdies on Nos. 2, 3 and 4, coupled with mere pars on the next two holes. The first real roar of the round could be heard behind the par-five seventh when the 5'2" giant sunk a 40-footer for eagle, following it quickly with a birdie on No. 8.

By that time the crowd had transformed, and Stackhouse's friends and mother weren't the only ones watching. At eight-under, with one hole remaining on the front nine, Stackhouse was on the verge of history.

On the ninth green, Stackhouse faced a slick, bending 30-foot downhill putt, but like everything else that morning, it found the bottom of the cup. "I stood over every putt knowing it was going to go into the hole," Stackhouse would say later about her front nine, which included just nine putts.

At this point the crowd, now around 150 patrons, erupted.

The putt elevated Stackhouse into special territory. Her 26 is lower than any nine-hole score in PGA or LPGA tour history. Stackhouse wasn't done however; she had another nine holes to play. Her back nine wasn't historic, it was actually rather pedestrian compared to the opening act. Stackhouse posted at 1-under to finish with a 61. She didn't reach golf's occult number, 59, but her 10-under-par, 61 did tie for Stanford's all-time low tournament round with someone you may have heard of; Tiger Woods.

"I was playing perfect golf," Stackhouse said. "I think about it, just 'Wow, I can't believe I did that.' It was amazing."

The incredible round catapulted her to the top of the leaderboard for a 10-stroke win, her first collegiate victory, and lowered the course record. She's done nothing but build on that momentum since. Stackhouse finished in the top-7 in each of Stanford's five spring tournaments, nabbing her second win a few weeks later at the Julie Inkster Spartan Invite. She fired only three rounds above par in the stretch, combining for a total score of 19-under.

In the Pac-12 tournament, Stackhouse had a share of the lead entering the final round, but a 1-over, 73 spilled her into a tie for third. However, the Cardinal did advance to the NCAA regional tournament, and on Thursday, Stackhouse will lead Stanford, on its home course, as the Cardinal look to earn an NCAA championship berth.

"Her technique and her skillset is pretty incredible," Stanford's women's golf coach Anne Walker said. "Each year there are fewer than three freshman who have that ability [to work the ball both ways like she does].

"With Mariah I'm blown away. I stand back and watch her short game and I think about what she should do, and she does exactly that."

Stackhouse's prowess as a freshman isn't a huge surprise; after all, she was swinging a club before she could read. At 2 Stackhouse would trail her father, Ken, to local courses around Atlanta, hefting a miniature set of clubs. Her dad molded Stackhouse's picturesque swing and instructed her until she was nine, when she got her first professional coach.

Still, even when he stepped back from the instructor's role, his impact on Mariah, and her golf game, never receded.

"He was literally there every day," Mariah Stackhouse said. "When I started playing competitively he quit his job and started his own business so he'd have time to take me to practice."

It's a familiar story to golf fans: A young, black golfer taught by Dad at a young age -- draws unavoidable comparisons to Tiger Woods. But Stackhouse is quick to point out she isn't the next Woods, no matter how closely their stories parallel in the beginning.

"Tiger has done so much," Stackhouse said. "I'm definitely nowhere near where he was at this age. I don't try to ignore [the comparisons]. But it's something I don't marinate on."

Even in his youth, Woods was the exception not the rule, his three straight U.S. Amateur wins speak to that. But Stackhouse has had a remarkable amateur career herself.

Stackhouse won over 100 tournaments before arriving at Stanford, dating to her first event at age 6. She played in an Atlanta Junior Golf tournament for golfers 9 and under, and her competitors, most of whom were three years older, towered over her.

But her dad stepped in with a bit of biblical inspiration. Ken reminded her of the story of David and Goliath, how David defeated the giant despite the seemingly insurmountable size differential. He encouraged Mariah to mark her golf ball with the letters Md, for Mariah and David. With the comforting thought in the back of her mind before every shot, Stackhouse vanquished her own colossus in victory.

To this day Stackhouse marks her ball, right below the numbers, with a capital M and lowercase d. The lesson rings true, helping her to not only endure, but also thrive in response to monumental tasks. Exemplified by her qualification for the U.S. Women's Open in 2011 at only 17.

The U.S. Open is the premiere event on the LPGA Tour, and in 2011 Stackhouse was the fifth-youngest competitor in the 156-player field, and the only African American. Her time at The Broadmoor in Colorado was short -- she shot 79 and 84 in the first two rounds, missing the cut -- but the lessons learned there are still paying forward. The experience showed her how much better she'd have to be to compete on the LPGA level, helping to refocus her goals. Plus, she had a brush with a personal hero.

"I walked in and saw Julie Inkster there and I was like 'Wow, I'm playing in the same tournament as Julie Inkster,'" Stackhouse said in a rare moment of awe.

The U.S. Open and her extensive amateur experience eased her transition into college golf, but even Stackhouse, unflappable and focused on the course, occasionally slips up. In the final tournament of the fall season, the Stanford Intercollegiate, the freshman had an uncharacteristically freshman moment.

After hitting an approach shot onto the first green Stackhouse slung her bag over her shoulder and strode to the putting surface. There, she set the bag down and instinctively reached for her putter. After groping around for a second, she finally came to the scary realization that it wasn't there. As it turns out, she left it on the practice putting green. An alert parent hurried back to grab her club, saving Stackhouse from putting with her wedge, but the kind gesture didn't shield her from a steady stream of good-natured ribbing courtesy of her teammates.

"She does do little freshman stuff, and thank goodness she does," Walker said. "Otherwise you would start to think Mariah is perfect."

In contrast to her stoic nature on the course, Stackhouse's personality is infectious. Her classmates at North Clayton High in Riverdale, Ga., elected Stackhouse class president her sophomore and junior years, and despite the average student's rigorous academic undertaking at Stanford, she managed to draw a huge conglomerate of dorm friends to watch a five-hour round of golf at the Cardinal's home event. Walker says she's never met a more humble person.

But it's her character on the course that's molded Stackhouse into one of the top collegiate players in the country. A trait never more evident than in January, when Walker issued her young star a challenge.

Walker believed Stackhouse wasn't quite giving 100 percent early in the semester and decided to test her on it. Stackhouse didn't say much, just agreed and told coach she'd work hard. But those were just words; she provided the response a few weeks later with her 61.

"You don't always get the reaction Mariah gave me," Walker said. "That's what really separates her and makes her unique...." "Today, in some ways, she's saying 'take that coach.'"

Stackhouse now has the confidence that she can hit low on any given day -- she'll carry that straight into regionals and potentially the national championships in her home state of Georgia -- after all, if she listens hard enough, she can still hear the crowd roar.

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