Take on the world

HOWLAND

Patrick Clemente doesn’t remember the first time his daughter, Gianna, played her first round of golf, though he does remember the first time he took her to hit balls at Creekside Golf Dome in Girard. She hadn’t even turned 2 years old yet.

At that point, he didn’t know if his child would continue the golf family legacy that the Clemente last name carries. Patrick, a 1993 Hubbard graduate, played for Youngstown State University from 1995 through 1998. His brother, Colin was a four-time, all-state honoree at John F. Kennedy and was a member of the 2000 and 2001 state championship teams at JFK. He later when on to play at the University of Akron.

Then there is Gianna, who at the ripe age of 6 years old just recently won her 20th tournament and is taking the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation by storm – so much so that she, Patrick and her mother, Julie, are leaving for North Carolina tonight to take part in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst – the site that just recently hosted the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens.

WALKING THE WALK

Playing a round of golf or even just hanging around Avalon Lakes Golf Course, it’s hard not to notice the pint-sized Clemente. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who stands just more than 4-feet tall has a textbook swing and the “golfer” look on the course that has made members and guests take notice.

Grown men will stop to watch the first-grader swing a golf club. Some will come up to her and tell her “I’m going to watch you on the (LPGA) tour one day.” While recently hitting on the driving range, players were stopping their rounds of golf to watch the John F. Kennedy, Lower Campus student hit the ball more than 100 yards (her average drive is around 110).

“She doesn’t seem to be phased by all of it,” Patrick said. “The first time she played (a tournament) she was just over 5, and I remember her coming up and saying ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’ It was so cute. But then she stepped on the first tee and ripped it down the middle. From then on she was fine. But the attention doesn’t seem to bother her.”

For Gianna, playing golf is just what she does – and does well.

“I like that it’s just for fun and I like making good scores,” Gianna said. “I like making friends. And I like winning.

“My favorite part is driving cause I like bombing it.”

While some things about her game are in her genes, most of her play has come from countless of hours of practice with her father – or as she calls him, “Daddy Caddie.”

Practices with her coach can include anything from chipping and puttting, to playing a round together, to heading to the range. On longer practice days, the duo like to keep it fun with their “marathon” days. In order, they golf, then swim, then golf, then go swimming again. Their record is 27 holes in one day.

“(As a coach) I would rate him a 9.5 out of 10,” Gianna said with a smile.

The rating suits Patrick just fine. Being the only coach the young golfer has ever had, he’s glad to be able to share this with her – and make sure he keeps it fun for her as well as developing her game.

“We try very hard every time we practice to make it fun and make it a game,” Patrick said. “Whether we are on the range or on the chipping green. Anything to make it fun.

“I always try to make it a bond. A lot of it is her learning what is good and what is bad and she’s learning in her head how to handle that. I don’t want to be that father that is out there yelling and pushing.”

The hard work has paid off. This summer on the U.S. Kids Tour, Gianna has averaged a scored of 39.75 for nine holes. Last week, she won her 20th tournament by shooting a 41. Since she began playing in tournaments just after her fifth birthday, she has won Player of the Year four times. Also, just a few weeks ago, she won the local “Drive, Chip and Putt” contest at Mill Creek. Not only did she win her age group, but she also was the second-highest scoring female of any age group.

While those are accomplishments that she is proud of, nothing gets her more excited then talking about the best round of her young life – scoring a 35 at Forest Hills Golf Course in Elyria – a 1-under par score for the day.

“I was really excited because I was like ‘Oh yay! I won but I don’t know yet!’ “

She did win – by four strokes.

THE TOUR – AND PINEHURST

Growing up, Patrick admitted that he, nor his brother, had anything like U.S. Kids Golf. Developed in 1997, founder Dave Van Horn created the organization to get his kids into the sport. The mission is clearly stated on their website: “To help kids have fun learning the lifelong game of golf and to encourage family interaction that builds lasting memories.”

The statement rings true for Julie, a 1994 Champion graduate.

“The U.S. Kids Golf organization is amazing,” she said. “The standards for qualifying for world are pretty steep. But it is amazing to see what these kids can do. It is the best, most positive sport environment I have ever been around.”

When playing on the U.S. Kids Golf circuit, courses are designed and modified for the age group – more specifically each course has maxium yardage for nine-holes to make the courses manageable for younger players.

For Gianna’s age group – girls 7 and under – the yardage begins at 1,100 yards for local tournaments. For the state tournament, the yardage extends to 1,200. This week at Pinehurst No. 3, she will be playing a 1,500-yard course.

Not only will the course be bigger, but so will the crowds and competition.

The field that she will play against at Pinehurst is the best of the best from around the world. To be able to play in this world tournament, the players had to have been named a local tour champion as well as hit certain benchmark scores.

Last year, she was the spring, summer and fall champion on the local Canton tour. This year, she won the spring tour, and because the target score is in the 40s (Gianna regularly shoots in the high 30s), she was selected to be a part of the best of the best in North Carolina. She has also already been invited to compete again in 2015.

This year, the field she will be playing in for her age bracket is 55 girls – and almost evenly split between American and International players.

“They try to mix the kids in groups, so she could be playing someone from Mexico or from Asia,” Patrick said.

Though the field is big and the galleries will be flooded, Gianna says she isn’t nervous. To her, it’s just another round of golf. And like any athlete, she has a good luck charm to help her through the biggest tournament of her young career – a small doll, no-more than two-inches tall.

“I keep Warrior Girl in my bag,” Gianna said. “She’s pink. She helps with my attitude and helps me be positive and helps me have good shots.”

NOT YOUR

AVERAGE KID

Though she can outplay many seasoned golfers, Gianna is just a 6-year-old girl who likes to do 6-year-old girl things. Her favorite golfer is Lexi Thompson, who signed a golf glove for her during the LPGA’s recent stop in Toledo. Her favorite TV show is “Next Food Network Star,” her favorite Disney princess is Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” and her favorite food is chocolate ice cream. She also likes to get sushi with her dad (Mom isn’t a fan), and after a hard day on the course, she enjoys a nice cold glass of apple juice.

Golf isn’t the only thing that keeps her busy. She recently played coach-pitch softball for the Lakeview Athletic Club and will be singing the National Anthem tonight at the Mahoning Valley Scrappers game.

At the end of the day, though, it’s golf that drives the young girl, and for now or until she says stop, her mother and father are just fine with that.

“I take more pride in what she has done than anything I ever did on the golf course. She doesn’t know that yet. But she will.”