June 8, 2011
By David Shefter, USGA
Malibu - Locked away in a fireproof safe is some precious memorabilia from another era. Cindy McConnell (née Scholefield), the proprietor, hadn't thought about the contents for nearly two decades. But a recent phone call piqued her interest in what is preserved there. Fiddling with the safe's lock, she carefully turns the dial and eventually unlocks the double-steel door. Once inside, McConnell finds a couple of cardboard boxes and quickly becomes reacquainted with her past.
McConnell carries the boxes to the kitchen and spreads the items on a granite counter top. Bag tags, pins, medals, clippings, a replica trophy and photographs tell a fascinating story. Among the collection are the following:
* An invitation to the 1988 Dinah Shore Nabisco Championship
* Medals won as the low scorer in U.S. Women's Open qualifying.
* A team photo from the 1988 Curtis Cup Match at Royal St. George's in England
* A replica of the Curtis Cup that she purchased after the competition.
* Bag tags from many competitions, including several USGA championships
* A newspaper clipping from her triumph at the 1987 Broadmoor Invitation
But the crown jewel lies hidden in a small blue velvet jewelry box. When the box is opened, a shiny gold medal appears with the USGA's insignia on one side and McConnell's noteworthy accomplishment engraved on the other. In 1987 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., McConnell made USGA history, claiming the inaugural U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur, a newly created national championship for female amateurs 25 and older.
This fall, the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur celebrates a milestone when it turns 25. The 2011 competition will be held Sept. 17-22 at Bayville Golf Club in Virginia Beach, Va.
"Has it really been that long?" McConnell, 50, said by phone when told of the event's approaching silver anniversary.
Time has a way of eroding memories, but in McConnell's case, her historic feat was forgotten by many in the golf community. That's mainly due to the fact that McConnell participated only in that inaugural Women's Mid-Amateur. By the fall of 1988, when the second championship was held, she had turned professional. Eight years later, she had vanished from the golf scene.
Now married and the mother of two children - Rachel, 13, and Josh, 11 - McConnell no longer has a connection to the game that consumed her life from 1980-96. The last competitive round McConnell played was the 1996 LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Championship, where she was the runner-up. She is still classified as a professional; McConnell has never applied to regain her amateur status nor shown any passion for a return to competitive golf.
When she has any spare time from being a mom, McConnell can be found surfing at renowned Zuma Beach, scuba diving for lobsters off Paradise Cove, skiing at Mammoth or hiking peaks in the Sierra Mountains. She recently made her first 14,000-foot climb, to the summit of Mt. Langley.
Family time includes camping excursions to Death Valley and trips to Walker Lake to fish and hike. Golf hasn't completely left the picture. McConnell owns the same clubs she used 15 years ago, including a persimmon fairway wood that remains in mint condition, and she occasionally participates in alumni events for the UCLA women's golf program. She was recently asked to volunteer at UCLA's spring tournament.
"I'll play two or three times a year," she said. "Golf is an all-day affair. With the family, it's tough [to find the time]."
McConnell's mother still belongs to The Los Angeles Country Club, where Cindy first learned the game and where her wedding was held in 1992. But now she no longer belongs to a club or maintains an official USGA Handicap Index.
"They have this idyllic life in this little beach town," said former LPGA Tour player-turned-Golf Channel analyst Kay Cockerill, a former UCLA teammate of McConnell, who stays in touch through Christmas cards and alumni outings. "Her life is the kids and the family."
Falling In Love With The Game
Golf was never a love-at-first-sight affair with McConnell. First introduced to the game at 11 by her parents, McConnell became involved in Los Angeles Country Club's junior program, as a summer activity more than anything else. As one of the few girls in the community, she often took part in sports activities with her younger brother, Dan, and two neighborhood boys; usually 2-on-2 football.
McConnell eventually gravitated to volleyball, tennis, skiing and softball. At Louisville High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Woodland Hills, she played on the softball and tennis teams her freshman and sophomore years. When the school dropped softball from its sports offerings after her sophomore year, she joined the swimming team as a senior.
"I got most improved swimmer," said McConnell, who was a 50 and 100-yard freestyle specialist.
Upon graduation, McConnell chose to attend the University of Utah, mainly for its close proximity to some of the world's best skiing. Her father had grown up in Salt Lake City, and a family friend who had attended the school gave it a glowing review.
"To be honest, I loved skiing more than golf," McConnell said. But during the summer between graduation and matriculating at Utah, McConnell became interested in golf again. She took lessons from LACC's pro, Fay Coleman, who told McConnell she had natural talent. He compared her to the club's best female player, Mary Elizabeth Shea (née Callahan), who had dominated the club championship and competed on a national level. Shea instantly became an inspiration for McConnell.
As a freshman at Utah, McConnell did a lot of skiing, but she also had the urge to play college golf. But there was one problem: Utah didn't have a women's team. Though McConnell urged the athletic administration to start a program - Title IX had been passed six years earlier - the school was uninterested in starting a women's golf team.
To fulfill her dream, McConnell would need to transfer. Dave Boska, the family's physician, had some connections, and he took McConnell first to Stanford - "I didn't have the grades. I was a B student" - and then to UCLA.
Boska invited UCLA women's coach Jackie Steinmann to Los Angeles C.C. for a round of golf with Cindy and her father. Afterward, Steinmann asked McConnell to try out for the team as a walk-on. By the fall of 1980, McConnell sometimes beat out scholarship players for a spot on the five-person travel squad. That 1980-81 team included Mary Enright, who would go on to win the 1981 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, future pro Carol Hogan (née Gallager) and Nancy Mockett, currently a site director for LPGA-USGA Girls Golf in Sacramento.
"She was a really good player," said the 84-year-old Steinmann, who retired from UCLA in 2000 and now resides in the San Diego area. "She was a perfect young woman to coach. She always did whatever I asked her to do. She was a very steady player."
Two years later, another walk-on joined the UCLA team. When Kay Cockerill, an easy-going player from Northern California arrived, she and McConnell hit it off immediately. The two were inseparable, often sneaking away to Los Angeles C.C. after practice to play friendly matches. Both were late bloomers - Cockerill didn't play much junior golf and chose UCLA for academics - and each had walked on to the team. Cockerill got her chance to play on the travel team for the first spring event of 1983 in San Diego and promptly won the tournament.
"Cindy was instantly very helpful to me," said Cockerill, who became an All-American at UCLA and a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion (1986-87). "She had a car. She drove me to practice. Cindy and I really bonded. She had the same kind of drive that I did."
Their competitive fire drove each player to greater heights. Yet despite the epic battles in practice, the two never let their friendship waver.
"I wanted to beat her and she wanted to beat me," said McConnell. "Kay and I had this amazing ... competition with each other and still remained great friends."
Becoming A National Champion
By May of 1983, McConnell had an economics degree from UCLA, but wasn't quite sure where her life or career were headed. She worked in her father's accounting office to earn money to fuel her amateur golf aspirations. While her college career didn't produce any victories, she was starting to show noticeable gains at amateur events. She won the 1983 Los Angeles City Championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the California Women's Amateur Championship. That was where McConnell befriended Pat Cornett, four years her senior and a top amateur from Northern California.
The two kept seeing each other along the amateur trail and would wind up being roommates at the inaugural Women's Mid-Amateur.
By 1985, McConnell had won the club championship at Los Angeles C.C. That year, she qualified for her first U.S. Women's Open and advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur. She also was the runner-up at the Ladies British Amateur Stroke-Play Championship.
In 1986, she claimed the Doherty Challenge Cup in Florida and won the California Women's Amateur Championship. The USGA took notice by naming her as first alternate to the 1986 Curtis Cup Team. McConnell, however, felt like she deserved to be on that team. The snub fueled her desire to get better.
"My goal was to make a Curtis Cup Team," she said. "The Curtis Cup is what kept me amateur. That was my driving force."
In the fall of 1986, Steinmann hired Scholefield as her assistant coach. Her duties were limited.
"I made sure the players showed up for practice," she said. But it kept Scholefield close to some of the country's best players, including Cockerill, who had just completed her eligibility and was finishing up academic requirements for her degree.
Nineteen eighty-seven proved to be one of McConnell's best years in golf. That summer, she won the prestigious Broadmoor Invitation, beating Cockerill in a memorable semifinal match.
Three holes down with four to play, McConnell rallied to force extra holes, chipping in for a birdie at the 18th. She won the match on the 19th hole. She then blitzed Kris Tschetter in the final, 8 and 7.
She also qualified for the U.S. Women's Open at Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club and made the cut, finishing as third-low amateur behind 1985 Women's Amateur champion Michiko Hattori of Japan and Kathleen McCarthy of California. McConnell shared 40th place at 12-over 300 with Juli Inkster, a future two time Women's Open champion and three-time Women's Amateur winner. Cockerill, the reigning Women's Amateur champion, was two strokes back of McConnell.
At the U.S. Women's Amateur in Rhode Island (Rhode Island C.C.), McConnell's run was ended in the third round by eventual semifinalist Nancy Bowen on the 23rd hole. Cockerill would win her second consecutive title.
McConnell's biggest moment would come two months later. The USGA had decided to start an amateur competition for female golfers age 25 and over. The men's version had been created six years earlier and through intensive lobbying by several top players and data provided by the Women's Committee, the USGA Executive Committee finally approved a similar national championship for women.
By virtue of past performances in USGA events, McConnell was exempt from sectional qualifying for the inaugural Women's Mid-Amateur. McConnell decided this was the opportunity to show the Curtis Cup selectors that she was a worthy candidate.
Plenty of excitement was in the air as the golfers arrived at historic Southern Hills Country Club, site of two previous U.S. Opens. Dena Nowotny, the chairman of the U.S. Women's MidAmateur, was a Southern Hills member and highly instrumental in getting the event at the club.
"We had a real diverse field," said Nowotny, who today splits time between Tulsa and Indian Wells, CA. "By diverse, I am talking about past Curtis Cuppers, top amateurs from around the country, many of whom had never been to Oklahoma, much less Southern Hills."
October normally is a beautiful month in central Oklahoma. But Mother Nature threw the field a stiff curve ball. Called a "Blue Norther" by locals, the weather brought temperatures plunging into the 40s with strong, biting winds.
McConnell recalled wearing a ski hat and using charcoal hand warmers that had to be lit at both ends. "It was like the California [Women's] State Amateur at Pebble Beach in November," said McConnell. "The weather was horrible."
McConnell qualified for match play with a two-round total of 164, seven shots behind medalist Anne Sander. But once the matches commenced, McConnell heated up with the weather. She cruised into the semifinals with decisive victories of 8 and 6 (over Millie Stanley), 7 and 5 (over Dede Hoffman), 4 and 3 (over Susan Wolf) and 6 and 5 (over Linda Olsen, who had eliminated favorites Leslie Shannon and Carol Semple Thompson to reach the quarters). Scholefield's toughest match came in the semifinals against Marilyn Horn (now Hardy), where she was extended to the 16th hole before prevailing, 4 and 2.
Her final-match opponent would be a familiar face. The entire week, McConnell and Pat Cornett of Corte Madera, Calif., had enjoyed the championship together. The two shared a hotel room and went to dinner every night. They played practice rounds together and now they would share the stage in the historic first Women's Mid-Amateur final.
The following year, McConnell would be a member of Cornett's wedding party. Cornett also attended McConnell's wedding at LACC in 1992.
As a token of appreciation, the players' caddies sent a dozen roses to their hotel room. Karen Dedman, a committeewoman from Sacramento who was scheduled to leave the championship earlier in the week, delayed her departure to watch the two friends play in the final. Both players were stunned to see her following the match.
The night before the final, the pair dined together at a local Olive Garden, then returned to the hotel to watch Game 7 of the National League playoffs featuring Cornett's beloved San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the game, 6-0.
"We were just so excited about being in the Women's MidAm finals," said Cornett, who was named the 2012 USA Curtis Cup captain on Feb. 5. "We were just chattering away."
Recalled McConnell: "It was really weird [that I was playing my roommate]. What we both wanted to do was play well. We didn't want either one of us to play poorly."
At the first tee that morning, Cornett smiled at her friend/roommate and said, "This is history, kid."
But unlike her semifinal performance when she shot 3-under 33 en route to a 5-and-3 rout of Charlotte Wood, Cornett struggled in the final. Part of it was the torrid play of McConnell, who birdied the first, third and sixth holes and owned a 4-up lead after nine holes. McConnell took holes 11 and 12 with pars for a 6-up lead and after 2 hours and 11 minutes, the match ended at the 13th hole.
"I blocked out that match just because I didn't play very well," said Cornett, a hematologist/oncologist who heads the education programs at the University of California at San Francisco. "The actual match kind of went by in a blur. [Cindy] was definitely playing well. I had been playing well, too. I just kind of failed that last day."
McConnell was a model of consistency from the outset of match play. Cockerill said her friend was always a tough match play opponent because "she would never beat herself."
McConnell certainly had enough length and a high right-to-left ball flight that allowed her to compete on the toughest of courses. And if her putter got hot - like it did at Southern Hills - she became very difficult to eliminate.
In the months that followed, people began asking the then-27year-old McConnell when she would turn professional. That answer would come a year later, but not before she finally earned a chance to experience a Curtis Cup. Judy Bell captained the USA team for the 1988 Match at Royal St. George's in England. The eight-woman squad also included Cornett, Thompson, Shannon, Caroline Keggi, Kathleen McCarthy Scrivner, 1987 WAPL winner Tracy Kerdyk and Pearl Sinn.
The only disappointment for McConnell and Cornett was the fact that they never were paired in foursomes (alternate-shot), though the 11-7 USA defeat hurt as well.
McConnell played twice with Thompson and lost both matches. Cornett was held out of foursomes and lost both singles encounters. McConnell dropped her Saturday singles match to Julie Wade, 2 up.
"Pat and I wanted to be partners so badly," said McConnell, echoing Cornett's sentiments. "We wanted to be a California team. I was bummed about that. It would have been great to play with her. I didn't know [Carol Semple Thompson] that well. I was a bit intimidated. She was just this amazing amateur player."
Nevertheless, McConnell took away fond memories. To see 10,000 spectators come out for an amateur competition brought chills down her spine. "It was just terrific," she said. "The camaraderie was fantastic."
The Next Stage
By the summer of 1988, McConnell had reached an important crossroads. She had achieved her amateur goals - playing in a Curtis Cup and winning a national championship. Her Women's Mid-Amateur victory gave her an exemption into the Women's Open, where she missed the cut. She was eliminated in the first round of the Women's Amateur, but had been asked by the USGA to play on the Women's World Amateur Team that would compete in Sweden the following month.
Unfortunately, McConnell had already filed the paperwork for LPGA Tour Qualifying School. In 1988, the Rules of Amateur Status stated that she was by definition a professional. Under today's Rules of Amateur Status, she could have entered Q School and remained an amateur.
McConnell would spend the next four years playing professional golf, bouncing between Europe, Asia and the United States. In 1990, she finished sixth on the Asian Tour Order of Merit.
The year before, she and her future husband, Brian, spent a summer on the Ladies European Tour. McConnell had a cousin who lived in England, and they used her home as a base. Brian caddied for Cindy and amazingly the partnership worked. Brian knew little about golf, but his presence was a calming influence.
"We were dating," said McConnell. "That was our trial. We got to see Europe. And we were making enough money to pay our way. The only problem was that Brian was always reorganizing my bag. I would always say to him, 'Where's my stuff?'"
She finished 32nd on the LET money list, including a 14thplace finish in the Women's British Open, which at the time was not considered a women's professional major.
McConnell finally achieved LPGA Tour playing privileges for the 1991 season, but without Brian along for the ride - he had since started a business as a general contractor in Malibu - the tour became a grind. During one stretch, McConnell missed eight straight cuts.
Her best moment came in the LPGA Bay State Classic at Blue Hill Country Club in Canton, Mass. McConnell, Meg Mallon and Cockerill shared a house that week. Cockerill wound up with her best finish (third) and McConnell posted a third-round 66 en route to finishing ninth, her best-ever showing.
"It was such a great week," recalled Cockerill. "We thought this is what it's all about. This is the way we want to play. This is what we can do. Of course, it didn't pan out. But it was great to experience that with Cindy."
McConnell earned $8,900 that week, but wound up 128th on the 1991 LPGA Tour money list. She failed to retain playing privileges for 1992 by $214. McConnell gave Q-School one more try that fall, but failed to qualify. She took the next year off, decided to try flying and earned her private pilot's license before being contacted by Mountain Gate Golf Club to be a teaching pro.
The arrangement didn't work out.
Two years later, in 1995, Bruce Hamilton, who was Corey Pavin's instructor and the head pro at Las Posas C.C., asked her to teach at the Camarillo, Calif., club. She accepted. Working alongside Jon Fiedler, McConnell gave lessons and worked in the pro shop. She also competed in the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Championship, finishing runner-up in 1995 and '96.
The 1996 event would be her last as a competitor. That year, McConnell's in-laws were planning an African safari and she wanted to go. She asked for a leave of absence, and when the club said no, McConnell quit.
The Golf Afterlife
McConnell has never looked back. She gave birth to the couple's first child (Rachel) in 1998 and their son, Joshua, was born two years later.
"I wasn't happy out there," McConnell said of the life as a touring pro. "I'm all about family activities now."
Today, it's not uncommon for McConnell to attend PTA meetings, help out with fund-raisers at her son's elementary school or coach her daughter's youth softball team. The calendar that hangs in the kitchen is marked with an activity almost every day.
Neither Rachel nor Joshua has latched onto golf, although both have gone to the driving range. Cindy said Josh has a natural swing. But he doesn't have the interest. Her children don't ask about their mother's past. They know she was a good amateur golfer, but that's where the questions stop. Maybe when they get older they'll grasp just how good she was. At least, McConnell hopes that's the case.
Five years ago, McConnell's children attended the Curtis Cup when the family stopped at Bandon Dunes en route to see friends in Washington. Rachel relished getting autographs and collecting pins for her hat, while Josh collected pins. Both still have the hats, but don't have many recollections of the competition. For Cindy, it was her first appearance at a Curtis Cup since playing in 1988.
"I wish I had gone to St. Andrews in 2008," she said. "I heard that was a great trip."
One story the kids haven't heard is that Hall of Famer Patty Berg befriended McConnell after she missed the match-play cut in a playoff at the 1983 U.S. Women's Amateur at Canoe Brook C.C. McConnell walked into the lobby with her head down and Berg was quick to offer some comfort. She invited McConnell to a clinic at nearby Morris County C.C. and the two exchanged holiday cards until Berg's death in 2006.
"Those are the kind of people you meet through amateur golf," said McConnell. "I met some wonderful people through amateur golf. That's what I miss the most.
"When I was on tour, you had to play almost every single day. Monday you traveled. Tuesday was a practice round. Wednesday was the pro-am, and the next four days, you hoped, was the tournament. You don't have to do that in amateur golf. I would do that over and over. [As a professional], I would wake up and say 'I don't want to play golf.'"
As another glorious sunset overtakes the California coast, McConnell wears a wetsuit and stands with her surfboard. The incoming tide gently ripples over her bare feet. The rest of her family stands by, watching a photographer shoot some portraits.
Life couldn't be better for McConnell. Her two kids are active, both in school and away from it. Her husband loves the outdoors as much as she does. They go on skiing and camping trips. Golf, meanwhile, is hardly ever discussed.
And McConnell is OK with that. Her amateur career was just a short chapter of her story.
Would she ever go back? Perhaps. A visitor mentions the process of reinstatement of her amateur status. She seems interested. It would offer a chance to reunite with friends of the past; people such as Cornett and Thompson.
"You know what would be really cool," said McConnell as she eyed the onrushing Pacific Ocean, "is if one of my kids would take it up. That would be really neat."
After all, that memorabilia could use some company.
David Shefter is the senior writer/content manager for the USGA.