Leilani Norman: A new force in Oregon women’s senior amateur golf

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Three big wins in 2015, and another trip to the USGA Senior Women’s Am

Leilani Norman didn’t start playing golf until she was 27 or so, didn’t break 80 for another 12 or 13 years and didn’t have a formal lesson until she moved to Eugene in 2008 and subsequently began working with head professional Gary Davis at Shadow Hills Country Club.

However, in the past six years, Norman has become a competitive force in the seniors division of Oregon women’s amateur golf, and at age 65 she made 2015 her best year yet, with three major victories and a fourth appearance in the Round of 64 in the U.S. Golf Association’s Senior Women’s Amateur Championships.

It was Norman’s second OGA senior amateur title — she previously won in 2013 — and emotionally the most meaningful, the final round falling on what would have been the 62nd birthday of her late brother, Jerry, who died in January 2014 after a four-year battle with lung cancer.

“I knew the tournament finished on his birthday, so I thought about him quite a bit,” she said. “He was always very supportive. He always asked me how I was doing when I was playing golf.

“It meant quite a bit to win that on his birthday.”

Less than a week later, Norman was the medalist, for the fourth time, at the qualifying tournament at Waverley Country Club in Portland for the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur, held in September in Nashville, Tenn. She went on to make the stroke-play cut before losing to 2009 national champion Sherry Herman in the first round of match play.

But her season wasn’t over. Earlier this month, Norman captured the 29th Pacific Northwest Golf Association Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, winning a sudden-death playoff with two sometimes playing partners, Anita Wicks of Roseburg and Eugene resident Ginny Burkey.

With Burkey out on the third playoff hole at Everett Golf & Country Club, Norman won it on the fourth, when she hit her second shot on the narrow, uphill par 4 No. 11 hole within three feet and made the birdie putt.

“I couldn’t see what happened, because it was uphill, but I heard people yelling and clapping, so I knew it was close,” she said.

The irony is that when Norman first began playing golf, in Hawaii where she worked as a human resources manager and lived for 35 years after college, she didn’t like it initially and her play was strictly recreational.

“I decided if I’m going to play this game I might as well try to get a little bit better,” she said. “I watched golf tournaments on television and read Golf Digest, just to get clues. …

“I guess I had some kind of natural ability. I wish I’d started when I was 12.”

By the time she moved to Eugene to be near her mother, Norma Smith, Norman had her handicap down to the 7-8 range. Her mother and stepfather had a social membership at Shadow Hills, and Norman joined and began playing there. For the first time, she got professionally fitted for a set of golf clubs — she’s just over 6 feet tall — and eventually began taking some lessons from Davis; her handicap is now 1.2.

Davis said he particularly worked with Norman this past spring over several lessons, focusing on creating more width and arc in her swing and using the club’s high-tech TrackMan system, which measures such things as launch angle and clubhead speed, to help her better understand her swing.

“Gary’s made a huge difference in my game,” Norman said, particularly in improved accuracy with her irons. She drives the golf ball about 220 yards; the strengths of her game are accuracy and her short game, she said. At Shadow Hills, she’s shot a 1-under 71 from the white tees (5,879 yards), which she plays in preparing for tournaments, and, earlier this year, a lifetime best 67 from the reds (5,374 yards).

“She’s pretty hard on herself,” said Davis, who has played with Norman and followed her in events at Shadow Hills. “Ability-wise, she’s got a lot of that.”

It was at the behest of a highly respected name in Oregon amateur golf, PNGA and Oregon Sports Hall of Famer Mary Budke, Norman said, that she entered the qualifying tournament for the USGA Senior Women’s Am in 2010; she reached the championships, held in Florida that year, but didn’t make the stroke-play cut. Coincidentally, Norman was paired with Budke in the first round of match play in the 2013 USGA Senior Women’s Am; Budke won, 6 and 4.

As she began playing more tournaments, for the first time in her life, Norman said, she learned something.

“I found I loved it,” she said. “I know there’s a little bit of pressure on it, but I enjoy it.”

Her chief goal now is to reach the USGA championships again and this time get past the first round of match play, however long that takes, because she intends to keep “playing as many tournaments as I can for as long as I can.”

(Published in The Register-Guard Oct. 27; Norman was later named the PNGA women’s senior player of the year.)

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