Brittany Lincicome experienced the pinnacle of high school girls golf last year, winning a state championship. She also has been ranked as high as No. 2 in major junior polls, won a number of top national junior events and once shot 65.
But she never has had as much fun in the sport as now. At Seminole High, for the first time, Lincicome is on a girls golf team.
"I've always hung out with the guys, I'd never had any girlfriends," Lincicome said. "Not that I don't enjoy hanging out with my coach and my dad, but hanging out with the girls is so much more fun."
For three years, Lincicome had to play regular-season matches with boys before going to postseason competition as an individual among girls teams. There were not enough girls at Seminole interested in playing golf.
Now there is a team. But at 10 other Pinellas County high schools and more than a dozen others around Tampa Bay, girls golf programs remain all but nonexistent.
The area still boasts talent and much of it is at work this week in the Florida High School Athletic Association's region tournaments. But in many cases, this is the first time all year the girls really have had to prove themselves.
At district competition last week, the best teams, for the most part, had region berths clinched the moment their tees went into the ground.
Several schools did not have enough players for a team.
"All the tournaments I play in, it's up to me. I don't have a team to fall back on," Hernando High junior Tara Allen said. "I either play my game and do well or I just go home with a horrible score.
"It bothers me, but I'm kind of used to it."
Six years ago, Hernando won the state championship. This year it couldn't even compete as only Allen and teammate Alison Frazier played in the district tournament.
Free rides for 80s
Specialization in youth sports is all the rage as kids are shunning multisport lives to concentrate on one activity, often with the goal of chasing a college scholarship.
Basketball, softball and baseball players fill club teams during high school offseasons, honing their skills and seeking exposure through tournaments that are often out of town and even out of state.
Golfers are no different, as junior leagues are gaining in popularity. Phyllis Lewellyn, a girls golf coach for Palm Harbor University who works at Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club in Clearwater, is in her fifth year of running the Florida Suncoast Junior Golf Tour, a popular year-round circuit for players high school age and younger.
For every 50 boys who play the tour, there are only about a dozen girls, she said. That would seem to leave opportunities as some 200 college girls golf scholarships go unclaimed, according to Jeff Gibson of the North Florida section of the PGA. Two years ago, a coach from Division II Wingate (N.C.) University called and asked Gibson for some Florida names.
"She had two full rides, looking for players who could break 85," Gibson said. "I couldn't find them."
The area has produced its share of top-shelf players, from current Florida Gators Amanda Dick (Countryside) and Whitney Code (Chamberlain) to touring professional Kelly Lagedrost (Hernando) to Seminole senior and 2002 state champion Lincicome. But the second-tier players are largely nonexistent, even with very real scholarship opportunities going begging.
"It's a shame there's not enough bodies out there that want to take advantage," South Florida women's golf coach Susan Holt said. "You'd think that would help the lack of participation at the high school level."
"An image thing'
Two of Pasco County's nine public schools did not field girls teams this year. Two schools in Hernando County brought only individuals to district tournaments, not having the minimum four players needed to post team scores. Nine schools in Hillsborough County failed to show at girls district tournaments.
In Pinellas, at least nine of the 16 public schools have to field teams in a sport for it to have a conference championship and count in overall county sports standings. Girls golf has yet to make the cut, with only about half a dozen schools having full teams.
Why? After all, this is Florida. It's not like the weather is lousy and there are no places to play.
Girls have any number of reasons why they don't play.
"If you don't work really hard at it, then it's rough for you to stick with the girls and stay with the pack," Nature Coast Tech senior Katie McCabe said. "Some girls kind of drop out, they hit a couple of bad balls and they don't stay. I wish more of them played."
Coaches cite everything from golf's difficulty to its isolated nature (nine-hole matches can take up to three hours with few teammates or spectators in sight) to the grind of players carrying their own clubs (state regulations do not allow motorized or pull carts).
Even coaches can be a problem as most high schools devote far less time to finding golf coaches than they do for the big team sports. Sometimes the coach knows the game, other times not.
"I remember when I was in high school, my golf coach was the driver's education teacher," Holt said. "He shot 110s when he played on the weekends and had a big banana slice. I'm thinking, "This guy's going to teach me how to hit the ball?' "
Those factors rarely keep boys away from golf. But high school boys, more often than girls, do not arrive new to the game.
"By the time (girls) get to that age when golf might be an option, they're already entrenched in other sports," said Arnold LeUnes, a sports psychology professor at Texas A&M. "They get picked off so early by soccer, volleyball, softball. Boys are much more likely to strike out on their own (with golf)."
Girls certainly could strike out on their own, but many are content to stick with team sports even if it means sitting on a bench and seeing little playing time. On a golf course they could at least see action.
"It's an image thing, the girls want to seem cool and (golf) isn't viewed that way," Springstead coach John Sweeney said. "We have to make it cool, because it really is enjoyable."
Swing into school
Golf is a middle school sport in Citrus and Hernando counties, but not Hillsborough. Three years ago, Hillsborough began what many administrators, coaches and golf courses are hoping becomes the ticket to building girls golf.
The North Florida PGA section's Swing Into School program strives to get quality instruction in middle schools through physical education classes. Equipment and training is provided free.
"This gets a club in their hand and removes a lot of the inhibitions, anxieties people have," said Westchase Golf Club general manager Clay Thomas, who helped found the program. "We want them to get comfortable so when they get to high school, golf sounds more like a sport they'd like to play."
Swing Into School is targeted for both genders, but organizers are counting on girls to play a big part in its success. Thomas said the program is in 50 middle schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and 10 other counties.
"What we find is that for a school to become very motivated, there tends to be a teacher or someone there that loves golf and wants to promote it," Gibson said. "We need somebody who will take the bit in the mouth and run with it."
It is not a matter of saving girls golf, just building it.
Like at Seminole, where Lincicome will graduate this school year but, perhaps, girls golf will play on without her.
"I hope so, but I really don't know," Lincicome said. "I hope my girls stick with it, I hope other girls come out and see what we've done.
"The guys have had it forever, but nobody really knows about the girls."
_ Times staff writer Laura Lee contributed to this report.
Nature Coast Tech senior Katie McCabe says the work required to be among the best may deter some girls from playing.
"All the tournaments I play in, it's up to me," says Tara Allen, who plays as an individual for Hernando.
Defending state champ Brittany Lincicome of Seminole is on a girls team for the first time.
Where they're playing
Based on team appearances at district tournaments (where all schools are allowed to play and four players are required to post a team score), only 32 of 55 public schools in the Tampa Bay area fielded girls golf teams:
CITRUS COUNTY (3 schools, 3 teams)
Citrus, Crystal River, Lecanto
HERNANDO COUNTY (4 schools, 2 teams)
PASCO COUNTY (9 schools, 7 teams)
Land O'Lakes, Mitchell, Pasco, Ridgewood, River Ridge, Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills
PINELLAS COUNTY (16 schools, 6 teams)
Clearwater, East Lake, Palm Harbor U., Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Seminole
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY (23 schools, 14 teams)
Alonso, Armwood, Bloomingdale, Brandon, Chamberlain, Durant, East Bay, Gaither, Newsome, Plant, Plant City, Riverview, Sickles, Wharton