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BUFFALO DISTRICT GOLF TITLE IS SWEET FOR 16-YEAR-OLD

Kelsey Johnson had all the physical tools for the past several years. She hit the ball plenty long and straight. Her short game was solid, her putting terrific. Still, there was always something that prevented her from approaching her boundless potential in golf.

A few weeks ago, just days before her 16th birthday, she began working with Orchard Park Country Club professional Gary Occhino on the finer points. They left the clubs in the bag and tinkered with the mind. Basically, they improved her ability to concentrate on every shot while managing the course over 18 holes.

"It was just working on being able to focus better and not thinking so much about the score, to just play my game," Johnson said. "I've been working with him a couple weeks, and since I've been playing great. And we haven't done anything with my swing."

Johnson spent the first part of the summer scoring in the mid- to low 80s, in line with her 10 handicap. In the past three weeks, she rattled off six straight rounds in the 70s before the streak was halted Friday in the Buffalo District Golf Association Women's Individual Championship at Lancaster Country Club.

Johnson's first clunker in weeks hardly mattered. She shot 86 and cruised to a six-shot victory over Brookfield CC's Kathy Hunt to win the championship of the stroke-play tournament. Johnson had an eight-stroke lead entering the final 18 holes after shooting a 78 Tuesday. Johnson's handicap is going down, which coincides with her rise toward the top of local women's amateur golf.

"I love it because this is the future of women's golf in Buffalo," Hunt said. "It's her, Lindsay Cornell and all the other juniors that are coming up. That's why this tournament is nice. We get the public and the private ladies together so everybody can compete."

Cornell, a senior-to-be at Clarence High who plays out of Fox Valley CC, missed the tournament while playing in the Optimist International Junior Championships at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Several other amateur powers skipped in protest because the field two years ago was expanded to include public-course players after it was private club only for years.

Johnson earned valuable points with the victory, which could make her the top-ranked women's amateur when the standings are tallied. She had no idea what her victory meant Friday. She didn't know there was a points system or rankings for the local women's circuit.

"It's really big," she said. "It's a completely new experience playing against people that are old enough to be my mom. It can be kind of intimidating, so (winning) feels good."

Johnson is the sister of Corey Johnson, who graduated from OP last month as one of the top high school players in the area. Kelsey will be a junior at OP in the fall. She played on the top-ranked boys varsity team last season.

"Everything inside of 10 feet, she's almost automatic," Corey Johnson said. "Her game has really developed overall over the last year."

Or perhaps in the past month.

Johnson just earned her driver's permit, but she has a license in driving the ball down the middle. She qualified for match play in the women's 75th New York State Amateur two weeks ago at Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University, then dropped her first-round match. She shot a 4-over-par 78 at Lancaster in the first round Tuesday, fired a career-best 73 Thursday at Beechwood CC in a Canadian-American junior tournament. She struggled on the front nine Friday, but she never lost command. The only hint of a threat came after a double-bogey on the par-3 14th hole. She made par on 15 and 16 after getting up and down and drained a 15-footer for birdie on No. 17. She didn't even know the margin of her lead going into the final hole.

"I had no clue," she said. "I wasn't really playing my game. All of them were making a run at me."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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