May 16, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the summer of 2015, 156 golfers representing 25 countries converged on Lancaster, Pa., for the 70th U.S. Women’s Open. The youngest American in the field?

Beth Lillie, a 16-year-old amateur from California.

“It was pretty crazy,” Lillie recalled this month.

Then a rising junior at Troy High School in her hometown of Fullerton, Lillie missed the cut at the U.S. Open, where she played a practice round with LPGA star Lexi Thompson, but her talent was evident. She shot 77-75, “which was pretty good in my book for being 16,” Lillie said.

Nearly three years later, she’s technically a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, where final exams ended last week. But Lillie’s first year of college golf is not over, and she’s fulfilling the promise she showed as a girl.

On a UVA team that placed second at last week’s NCAA regional in Madison, Wis., Lillie is second in scoring, with a stroke average of 72.96. (Anna Redding, a junior, is first at 72.90.)

In October, Lillie won one of the first college tournaments she played in — the Landfall Tradition in Wilmington, N.C. — and last month she placed fifth at the ACC championships. She was one of four freshmen named to the All-ACC team.

“I’m just thrilled to have her for another three years,” said Kim Lewellen, who’s in her 11th season as the Cavaliers’ head coach.

In 2017, Virginia failed to qualify for an NCAA regional for the first time in Lewellen’s tenure. To the core that returned from that team, the Wahoos added a heralded recruit in Lillie, and her impact has been significant on a lineup that includes no seniors.

“She was a breath of fresh air when she came in, I think, to the entire team,” Lewellen said, “especially because we had a rough year last year, probably the roughest since I’ve coached.

“Obviously her caliber of play helped us get back quickly to where we had been prior to last year. That made a big difference in itself, but she’s also a phenomenal teammate.

“She loves the game and loves to practice. She’s competitive, and that love of the game resonated through the team, and she enjoys it being a team sport. You can tell she enjoys the camaraderie of her teammates.”

Lillie said: “It’s been so fun. More fun that I imagined. More exciting than I imagined. College golf is just the best thing ever, honestly. Every round you’re just excited to play. I’ve had highs and lows, and it’s all been a good learning experience.”

One more challenge awaits Lillie and her teammates this season. Virginia is among the 24 teams that qualified for the NCAA championships, which start Friday at the Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.

“It’s the best teams in the country, and obviously we weren’t top 10 or whatever [heading into the postseason], so I think we’re kind of an underdog, which is a cool position for us to be in,” Lillie said. “We have nothing to lose. I think we play our best when we have nothing to lose, like we did at regionals.”

Lillie’s father played tennis at UC Irvine, and her sisters, both older, are accomplished athletes, too. Alison played golf at the University of San Francisco, and Meredith swims at the University of the Pacific.

Staying on the West Coast was always an option for Lillie, but when she visited UVA and saw “the quality of the school and the quality of the athletics program, and the coaches and the team, I just felt like I fit in,” she said.

“It didn’t feel like I was all the way across the country, and I also just wanted to try something a little different for college and see some new faces.”

Lillie committed to UVA during the summer before her junior year at Troy High. Credit her father with an assist.

As the trip she’d scheduled to Charlottesville neared, Lillie began having second thoughts. She’d already taken unofficial visits to Alabama, Stanford, Vanderbilt, UCLA and Auburn, and “I was kind of not motivated to go, just because I was kind of sick of the whole recruiting thing,” Lillie recalled.

“But my dad was like, `No, you’re going. UVA’s a great place.’ He knew about it, and I went and immediately I knew when I came here. It was a cool feeling.”

That Fullerton is some 2,500 miles from Charlottesville did not concern Lewellen during the Cavaliers’ courtship of Lillie.

“We’ve had a lot of luck recruiting the West,” Lewellen said. “To be honest, I think the school itself academically draws them towards the East Coast, and then obviously the ACC being strong in golf is attractive to the West Coasters.

“They’re far away from home, but I think because we travel so much anyway in our sport, they’re used to it. It’s not like [elite young golfers are] just going to the ball field down the road. Every tournament they ever go to as a junior golfer, they’re usually traveling. All of their majors, all of the USGA events, they’re traveling.

“And then even with the LPGA tour, now it’s become a world tour versus just a United States tour. In our sport there’s just a lot of travel involved.”

Fullerton is about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles in Southern California, and Lillie grew up in a warm climate. Her first winter in Charlottesville, where it was unseasonably cold in February, March and early April, seemed interminable to her at times.

“It was tough,” Lillie said, “tougher than I probably expected, just because of the number of days we were out there when it was 30, 40 degrees. It gets old, and [the team] didn’t have the best spring, so that made it a little bit longer too, because you’re trying to work extra hard, but you’re not exactly wanting to stay out there extra hours, because you’re freezing. But credit to our team. We all toughed it out and got out there every day and worked hard so we could do what we did at regionals and ACCs.”

During the 2017-18 school year, Lillie roomed with Rachel Robinson, who started every game for UVA’s field hockey team as a freshman last fall. Robinson, who’s from Mount Joy, Pa., was named to the United States’ U-21 national team in December.

“Rachel and I got along super well,” Lillie said, “and we were both freshmen who were out there playing right away, so we could talk to each other about that, and that was really cool.”

She was not, Lillie admitted, familiar with Robinson’s sport before arriving in Charlottesville. Not only had she never seen a field hockey game, Lillie said with a smile, “I’d never even met a field hockey player until I roomed with one.”

Lillie played soccer and basketball when she was growing up, and “I just loved the team aspect and having to play for someone else beside you and know that they’re playing for you,” she said.

Golf ultimately is an individual sport, but the college game allows players to be part of a team. Lillie relishes that aspect of her UVA experience.

“Beth came in as a complete team player,” Lewellen said. “I don’t even know if she’s recognized that I’ve noticed this, but we’ll be on the driving range, and let’s say she’s hitting golf balls, and there’s one ball left and it’s in her pile to hit. She’ll automatically smack it to teammates for them to have the last ball to hit.”

As a Cavalier, Lillie has three top-10 finishes and has shot eight rounds of 70 or better. Lillie was good when she enrolled at UVA last summer, “but she’s also improved a lot since she’s been here,” Lewellen said.

“To be honest, she’s only touched and scratched what she’s capable of doing. She hits the ball long, she can make a lot of birdies, and I think continuing in this atmosphere and at this level of the competition in the ACC, she’s just going to continue to get better and get better.”

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