Brooke Riley stood over a nasty 4-foot putt with a clear understanding of what it meant.
In a word: Everything.
Years of tinkering and fine-tuning her swing in practice with coach Dennis Wells … years of chasing and winning high school and junior titles … years of sacrifice and steadfast determination had finally paid off.
The only girls golfer in East Union history to reach the CIF State Championship had the gold medal in sight. She just needed to drain a winding, downhill 4-footer to force a playoff.
“I kept my head down,” she said, “and I was confident I was going to make it.”
The golf gods thought otherwise. Riley’s putt lipped out and slid another seven feet downhill, carrying her championship hopes with it.
Riley would miss her comeback putt, settling for a 1-under 73 and a third-place tie in her second straight appearance at California high school golf’s toughest tournament.
“It’s an extremely difficult putt, especially a downhill 3- or 4-footer. That’s one of the toughest putts in golf,” she said. “I thought I hit the putt I wanted. When it missed, I was shocked and disappointed.”
It opened the door for her playing partner, Pioneer freshman phenom Sabrina Iqbal, who captured the championship with a tap-in par. She shot a 3-under 71.
Kathleen Scavo of Justin-Sienna was second with a 72, while Bethany Wu of Diamond Bar shared bronze with Riley.
Three of the top-four golfers hailed from Northern California. The take-home prize for third was a “nice” medal, Riley said still stinging from her only double bogey.
“You have to let them be upset,” Wells said. “But she showed two things: One, that she could play with any girl from the north and the south; and two, she showed the top colleges what she can do. That’s more important than being the state champion.
“She gets it. She knows how great winning the state championship would have been, but she’s also smart enough to know the big picture is greater than all of that.”
Still, this one will burn.
The East Union standout arrived at that make-or-break moment with a flurry of birdies along the back nine that shot her name up the leaderboard at Red Hills Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga.
Riley’s birdie run on holes 13 through 15 earned her a tie for the lead with Iqbal.
“I knew we were neck and neck, but I was trying not to think about that. I try not to think about the other groups or girls; just focus on the shot in front of me,” Riley said.
Iqbal is hard to ignore. She’s only 13 and already a sensation on the junior circuit.
“She’s insanely good,” Riley said. “She even skipped a grade.”
The two would remain tied going into the 18th hole, an uphill, 378-yard par-4.
Iqbal’s approach landed within 15 feet of the cup and she left herself a tap-in second putt, shifting all the pressure onto Riley.
She tried to take the break out of her putt with a firm stroke, “which good golfers do,” Wells said, but hit it a little too stiff.
“I thought I put a good stroke on it. I thought I hit the right line,” she said, “but it lipped out on the right side and went down about seven feet.”
Riley birdied six holes, including back-to-back par-5s on the back-nine that seemed to put her back in a comfort zone after bogeys on 10 and 12.
For 17 holes, she was at ease on a course she had never played and walked only once.
Wells said the disappointment will fuel her off-season workouts and practice rounds. Riley isn’t planning to take any time off, not with a pair of tournaments on the horizon and a 4-foot putt hanging over her head.
“Sometimes a layoff every once in a while is good, but I just want to keep going. I want to stay in it,” she said. “(Letting go) has been a part of my game that I’ve struggled with. I was confident in that putt, but I’ll be working on those a lot more so that if I’m ever in that situation I’ll be even more confident.”
Wells has no doubts.
He projected Riley’s rise long before she was a two-time state qualifier, and he believes this setback will make her an even stronger player in her senior season.
“It’s going to make her better. She realizes things do happen, mistakes will be made, but you just learn and move on,” he said. “Don’t second guess anything. Just think about what did wrong and learn from it.”
To contact Managing Editor James Burns email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at jburns1980.