Leaving his ego in the pro shop, he was upstaged by an upstart

DERRY - Earlier this month, a ponytailed golfing phenom beat a field that included competitors up to five years her senior to win her second consecutive New Hampshire Women's Golf Association Junior Championship.

With an even-par round in the 18-hole tournament at Manchester's Intervale Country Club, 12-year-old Lauren Thibodeau proved that her stunning victory at 11 last year was no fluke. Eager to discover what makes Thibodeau tick, I asked a few days after her victory if I could join her for nine holes.

A couple of days later, we met at Derry's Brookstone Golf & Driving Range, home to a challenging par-3 course that's not far from Thibodeau's Hampstead residence. As a lifelong golfer with a decent handicap, I thought perhaps I could compete with this soon-to-be seventh-grader, but Thibodeau quickly doused my delusions by draining a 20-foot birdie putt on the first hole. Meanwhile, I three-putted for a bogey.

Luckily, I had checked my ego in the pro shop.

Before our round, I chatted with Thibodeau and her mother, Kristen, who had agreed to meet me just hours before Lauren was to fly to Florida for the Optimist International Junior Golf Championships. During our interview, I asked Lauren what she enjoys most about playing golf. Her answer:

“It's that you're never really going to master the game of golf. It's like a puzzle that can never get solved.''

Thibodeau discovered golf's eternal challenge at age 6, when she took a lesson at Atkinson Resort & Country Club. Neither Kristen nor Lauren's father, David, played golf, but a friend of Kristen's had observed Lauren's athleticism and suggested introducing her to the game.

After the lesson, Thibodeau was smitten. She began playing at Brookstone and another par-3 course, Murphy's Garrison Golf Center in Haverhill, Mass., and at 7 became involved in The First Tee of New Hampshire's golf and character-development programs in North Hampton.

She began competing in tournaments at 8, and at 9 she qualified for the 2009 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C. She finished 62nd in her age group that year, but improved to 38th in 2010 and 35th last year.

Her big breakthrough came at the 2011 NHWGA Junior at Intervale, where she shot 77 and defeated two-time defending champion Faith Jenkins, 17, by two strokes.

“Everyone was stunned — the players, the parents, the volunteers,'' Kristen recalled. “We didn't know what to say. It was really surprising.”

Thibodeau turned more heads with her heroics at last summer's Optimist International tournament in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where during the second round she holed an 8-iron on the 103-yard sixth hole at PGA National Resort's Squire Course for her first ace. With rounds of 83-78-82, she finished tied for 14th among 36 girls in the 10-to-12 age division.

Thibodeau's winning score of 73 at Intervale this year is her best competitive 18-hole round to date, although she beat it with a practice-round 72 the day before, she said. And last week, she returned to Palm Beach Gardens and placed fifth in the Optimist International's 10-to-12 division. With rounds of 77-75-82, she finished 13 strokes behind the winner, but was the low American.

On Thursday, Thibodeau will be back in Pinehurst for the U.S. Kids World Championship, competing in the 12-year-old girls' division. Her goal is to finish among the top six Americans and earn a berth in the U.S. Kids World Cup, a match-play competition staged on the famous Pinehurst No. 2 course, which has hosted two U.S. Opens and will stage both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in 2014. And then it's back home to make her debut in the NHWGA Championship, starting Aug. 7 at Hanover Country Club, where most of her fellow competitors will be grown women.

While playing a busy tournament schedule between St. Patrick's Day and Veterans Day, Thibodeau exudes enthusiasm. “She absolutely loves to play,'' said Joanne Flynn, the PGA director of golf at Windham Country Club, who has taught Thibodeau since the golfer was 9. “She's driven.I think when some (other kids) are more apt to run to the mall, she's running to the practice tee.''

With repetition, Thibodeau has honed her technique and built confidence. Her club reaches a classic position parallel to the ground at the top of her backswing, and she putts boldly like the legendary Arnold Palmer, rarely leaving her ball short of the hole.

During our round at Brookstone, a foursome of duffers ahead invited us to play through. After missing the green to the right with her tee shot, Thibodeau faced a ticklish downhill chip from the rough to a hole location just 15 feet away. With the group of men watching, Thibodeau pulled out her 60-degree wedge and calmly chipped in for a birdie that elicited a chorus of raucous cheers. “Will we see you on 'The Big Break?''' asked one of the hackers, citing the Golf Channel cable reality show that features aspiring pros. Another asked Thibodeau her name and made a mental note. “When I see you playing on the tour, I'll say I played with you,'' he said.

Taking the kudos in stride, Thibodeau stepped to the next tee, hit her sand wedge shot 3 feet from the hole and tapped in for another birdie. And although she missed birdie putts on the last two holes, she finished with a score of 2-under par, just a stroke off her course record from the women's tees.

After playing with Thibodeau, I'd say the kid's for real.

Mike Cullity's column on New Hampshire golf appears weekly during the golf season in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at mcullity@unionleader.com.