Benefield: Leighton's golf career right on course

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Using her 8-iron, Abby Leighton hit countless lofting shots to a flag 134 yards away.

Then she pulled out her 5-iron and started taking aim at the 168-yard flag.

The shots looked beautiful — soaring and arrow straight.

But to her, something was amiss. She moved two stations to her right, pulled a ball from the box with her club and swung again. That ball almost struck the flag.

“That’s what it was,” she said, turning to Cardinal Newman golf coach T.J. McMahon, who was chuckling.

“The mats aren’t all flat,” he said, indicating the synthetic pads at each of Fountaingrove Club’s driving-range station.

So fine-tuned is Leighton’s game that she could feel something just a smidgen awry under her feet and knew it was affecting the flight of the ball. Now your average duffer would kill for the kind of shots Leighton, a sophomore on Cardinal Newman’s golf team, was hitting off of that imperfect mat. But Leighton is by no means your average duffer.

She is the new North Bay League-Redwood individual champ. She won the North Coast Section Division 2 individual qualifier Oct. 22 by shooting a 2-under 69 on the par-71 course at Peacock Gap Golf Club in San Rafael. A golfer from Deer Valley High also shot a 69, but Leighton bested her on the back nine so she won the tiebreaker and the title.

Today, she’ll vie for the Div. 1 individual championship at Berkeley’s Tilden Park Golf Course, where she is hoping to crack the top 10. She finished 14th last year. Only the top four individuals move on to the NorCal Championship at Woodbridge Golf and Country Club in Lodi on Nov. 5.

The Healdsburg Hounds, who shared the NBL-Redwood title with Cardinal Newman, qualified their team, as did the Petaluma Trojans from the Vine Valley Athletic League. Maria Carrillo senior Nicole Kearns also qualified to compete.

From among more than 100 golfers teeing off today at Tilden Park, McMahon thinks Leighton can better her finish from last year and perhaps advance to the NorCal tournament.

“With the way she is playing right now, she has a good shot, but there are a lot of good golfers out there,” McMahon said.

Count Leighton among them.

Playing since she was 5 and coached by her dad, Jon, Leighton gave up other sports when it became clear her gifts were in golf.

“My dad and my family saw something in me when I was playing golf and thought I could be really good at it,” she said.

And then, as these things are apt to go, she turned the tables on her dad. It had to happen — student becomes teacher.

“The first time I beat him I was in seventh or eighth grade,” she said. “That was when we both realized that maybe this can go somewhere.”

It’s going somewhere. Leighton set a school record with her 4-under-par 32 on the front nine at Fountaingrove on Oct. 12.

Yes, that’s her home course. Yes, she practices there all of the time. Yes, she knows it well … but, yes, indeed, that is a phenomenal score. Jaw-dropping, even.

“It was crazy,” she said of that round.

She knew she was playing well, but there was an element of let’s-not-jinx-this that afternoon.

“I wasn’t really paying attention to my scorecard because I didn’t want to psyche myself out,” she said. “When I saw the score I was like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ ”

But it was more than a momentary thrill. It was a confidence boost.

“I did feel like I was playing better than I had before during the season,” she said. “One, it was exciting and two, it made me feel like I can go farther than I did last year.”

Leighton has consistently posted strong scores all season. There isn’t a clunker on her resume. She shot a 2-under 34 on Oakmont West in the first round of the season in August — a course that McMahon said doesn’t suit her long game. She shot an even-par 36 in the league opener at Bennett Valley on Sept. 13. She was 4 over at Healdburg’s tough par-35 course at Tayman on Sept. 26. At Northwood against El Molino, she shot a one-over 37 on the par-36 course.

Talk to McMahon and other coaches around the league and they talk of the beauty of Leighton’s game. She has incredible length — she says she typically drives about 260 yards — but she plays straight. Leighton is not one to be found slowing the pace looking for her ball.

“She squares the ball up and hits it straight pretty consistently,” McMahon said. “It allows her to use her shorter irons more consistently. From 100 yards out, she’s really accurate. She puts herself in a position to consistently give herself an opportunity on the next shot.”

I asked McMahon if he’s ever seen her flustered or frustrated by the game. It’s golf, after all. He had to go back to last year, to a moment that she tried to get herself out of a bind by doing too much. He hasn’t seen it since.

She has a confidence and ease about her that seems to show in the way she goes about her routine.

And if her game is on, the sophomore who hopes to play in college and perhaps go pro, could make some noise in Berkeley.

“I do think about the competition,” she said. “I know that the best of the best is going to be there, so I can only try my best and hope that my game will be good that day.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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