It was an historic tournament, but that doesn’t mean what happened was a surprise to Danny Dougherty or anybody who has been paying attention lately to high school golf in Delaware.
Dougherty is a senior co-captain on the Tower Hill team that just won its third straight state championship. That in itself is noteworthy, since the Hillers had never won the state title before their threepeat. But what made this tournament special is that, for the first time ever, five of the top six finishers were girls.
That exclamation point also comes with an asterisk – the girls’ tees are closer to the hole and their course is 15 percent shorter than the boys, which certainly gives them an advantage when it comes to driving. But, as everyone knows, you drive for show and putt for dough, and when you throw in the short game and the mental game, the girls’ skill level certainly matches the boys’ – and, in many cases, exceeds it.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal playing against girls, but it definitely is a challenge because these girls are the real deal,” Dougherty said. “Girls golf in Delaware is really strong, so it wasn’t a surprise that five of the top six finishers were girls. The talent level is so good, they are capable of going low any day and they would be hard to play against from any tee box.”
Leading the way for the girls and the entire state was Archmere’s Phoebe Brinker, who is no stranger to making history – when she won the state high school title two years ago as an eighth grader she became the first girls champion in the 43-year history of the tournament.
In second place this year was the only boy in the top 5, Austin Barbin of Red Lion Christian, followed by Haley Quickel of Padua and two of Dougherty’s teammates at Tower Hill, Rylie Heflin and Jennifer Cleary. Finishing in sixth place was Esther Park of Alexis I. duPont High School.
Heflin, Cleary and Dougherty, who finished 18th, gave the Hillers a one-two-three punch that made their third championship a breeze – Tower Hill beat second-place Appoquinimink by 17 strokes. Rounding out the state championship team were D.J. Scott, Dylan Evans and Abhishek Raval.
Tower Hill Director of Athletics Seth Kushkin said there was no problem running a co-ed program and, in fact, the opposite was true.
“They are a very talented group of golfers,” Kushkin said, “but the comradery they have when they’re on the course is what continues to make them successful.”
Now the girls hope their success in recent years has a trickle-down effect on younger kids who will see what they accomplished and will want to duplicate it and even exceed it.
“I think that five of the top six finishers being girls will definitely inspire other girls and hopefully expand the game for girls in the state of Delaware,” Cleary said. “Unfortunately, golf isn’t a prominent sport for middle schoolers and high schoolers in the state of Delaware, but I hope that one day it might be and maybe they will have a girls division.”
That, of course, is the next step in the progress of girls golf in the First State, but the first step has already been taken and it was a big one. Before Brinker’s historic win three years ago, the top female finisher just won a medal that acknowledged only that – she was the best girl in the tournament. Now, thanks to Brinker’s two titles, the girls don’t have to settle for second-best.
Cleary competed against her brothers when she was growing up and she said that helped her develop her game both physically and mentally.
“It developed me as an athlete because I had to compete up to their level,” she said. “I think, with golf, it doesn’t really matter who you are – when you get to the course all the labels disappear and it’s your game that defines you.”