Connelly's winning approach


Forget, for a moment, all the prestige of the Junior Ryder Cup. Forget that only 24 of the best junior golfers in the world get to play in the event. Forget that it took months for them to qualify. Forget all the notoriety, all the pressure.

Stephanie Connelly doesn't concern herself with any of that. For her, it's much simpler.

"I just want to win," said Connelly, who leaves tomorrow for Ireland to play in the fourth Junior Ryder Cup. "I understand what it's about and what it means, but I'm a very competitive person and I want to go win."

Connelly, a sophomore at Northeast High in Pasadena, will get the chance to amply exercise that competitive spirit starting Tuesday when she joins a 12-player U.S. contingent that travels to the Kildare Hotel and Golf Club in Straffan, Ireland, to try to win back the cup from its European holders.

Connelly figures to be central to the U.S. team's hopes of winning the biennial showdown, something it hasn't done since the 1997 matches at San Roque and Alcaidesa Links in Spain. She was the top qualifier from her 13-to-15-year-old age group, and has more Junior PGA Tour wins in the past two years (four) than any of the other five girls on the team.

She also won last year's 4A-3A girls state championship - breaking an 18-year-old scoring record in the process - and captured the 2001 Maryland State Junior Girls' championship.

And she's only 15.

Now she has a chance to cement her status as one of the world's best young talents, and to do it while representing her country overseas.

That's admittedly a lot of pressure for a teenager, but to hear Connelly tell it, the higher the stakes and the higher the expectations, the better off she'll be.

"I know [the pressure's] there and I do think about it when I'm out there, but I don't get bothered by it," said Connelly, who plays out of Sparrows Point Country Club in Dundalk. "It's kind of what drives me."

Ever the competitor, Connelly has already studied Kildare's yardage book and looked for possible advantages for her and her teammates. She said Kildare's American layout - the course was designed by Arnold Palmer - should mean the U.S. won't have to adapt too much to foreign playing conditions.

She said she's also encouraged by the fact that the home team has never won since the series began in 1995.

Her departure tomorrow marks the end of a yearlong wait for Connelly and the 11 other U.S. team members, all of whom qualified for the 2001 Ryder Cup last summer, which was postponed by the Sept. 11 attacks. The rosters from both 2001 teams were kept intact for this year's matches.

The American team was selected based on the 2001 Junior PGA Tour standings for the 13-15 year-olds (four boys, four girls) and results from the 2001 Westfield Junior PGA Championship for the 16-18 year-olds (two boys, two girls). Europe's 13-15 age-group players were picked according to results from the 2001 European Young Masters, while the four 16-18 players were hand selected by the European Golf Association.

Play starts Monday with a junior-am competition that amounts to something of a practice round for the 24 golfers. The real matches get underway Tuesday with a boys vs. boys and girls vs. girls four-ball match format, then concludes Wednesday with a day of mixed four-ball matches.

Europe holds a 2-1 lead in the series, including a 10 1/2 to 1 1/2 drubbing of the Americans in Cape Cod, Mass., in 1999. The Europeans also won the inaugural event in 1995, when Spain's Sergio Garcia paced the victors in Rochester, N.Y. Garcia's success at the Junior Ryder Cup helped thrust him onto the world stage, and it's also been a stepping stone to the professional ranks for American PGA Tour members David Gossett and Ty Tryon.

Connelly aspires to be a pro herself, but that won't be on her mind next week. For now, it's all about winning the Cup.

"It would mean so much to me to win, especially on their own turf," said Connelly. "It was great to win the state championship. It was a goal of mine, I achieved it, and I loved it. But it would just be such an incredible experience to win while representing my country.

"I'm ready to go over and play."

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