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Benefield: Cardinal Newman golfer Abby Leighton having a summer to remember

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Unfamiliar with this particular golf tournament? No problem. Not schooled in competitive match play? No problem. Playing more holes of golf per day than you ever have before? No problem. Coming into the final two days of top-caliber golf competition as the 18th seed, needing to dispatch Nos. 15, 7, 3, 2 and 1 to win? Yet again, no problem.

For Abby Leighton, who will be a junior when Cardinal Newman starts the school year in August, none of the above was a problem.

It’s not as if Leighton doesn’t have a strong golf resume. As a sophomore she won the North Bay League-Redwood Division tournament, then won the North Coast Section Division 2 individual qualifying tournament before falling short in the Division 1 tournament, where she had hoped to qualify for NorCals for the first time.

That was a disappointment to be sure, but it came at the end of a pretty strong sophomore campaign.

This summer, Leighton set out to play a lot of golf, competing in tournaments and having fun on the course — whether her game was hot or not. At the halfway mark of her summer break, she’s made a pretty good run at “mission accomplished” on all fronts.

Leighton is fresh off her June 28 win at the 70th annual California Junior Girls’ State Championship at Quail Lodge & Golf Course in Carmel. And she did it among the state’s best and she did it in match play — a competitive format she’s never played before in a tournament setting.

“I really liked match play because I’m a competitive person,” she said. “I liked the pressure and the competition. Really, your score doesn’t matter. You are just trying to beat your opponent.”

Leighton qualified for the seeded match play portion of the tournament after navigating three days of stroke play among the state’s best junior golfers. And as the 18th seed heading into the final two days, she had to run the gauntlet of one-on-one match play against the tournament’s best to emerge the champ.

After going into sudden-death playoffs in both rounds on the penultimate day, Leighton had to dispatch the No. 1 seed, Jaqueline Lucena of Chico, to take the championship. Leighton shot three straight birdies on the fourth, fifth and sixth holes to take a lead she would never relinquish.

“These are the best juniors in the state playing,” Cardinal Newman girls golf coach T.J. McMahon said. “She went head-to-head with them. She had to play five really good days of golf in a row to do what she did.”

And it turns out that Leighton didn’t, at least at first, know exactly what she was getting into when she signed up for the tournament in Carmel.

“I didn’t realize how big the tournament is until I actually won it,” she said. “It was bigger than I originally thought it was.”

The format, and the competition, proved challenging over the five days.

And, after days of 18 and 36 holes of golf, she had to play her way out of a couple of deficits to even make the final round.

“I played a lot of golf,” she said. “It was 18 holes all week. On Wednesday and Thursday I played two rounds of 18 and sometimes I would get into a playoff and extra holes.

“I have never played two rounds a day. My body was hurting and I think a lot of people felt the same way.”

In high school, where Leighton is the best player around, girls’ rounds are just nine holes. And that’s a detriment to a player like Leighton, McMahon said.

“Abby always excels at 18,” he said. “She traditionally plays the back nine better than the front nine.”

Success this summer will surely boost Leighton’s game coming into the fall high school season.

“I think this will give her much more confidence,” McMahon said.

Leighton’s goal has always been to make the NorCal tournament. She fell short last season, finishing tied for 22nd among 145 athletes in the CIF North Coast Section Division 1 tournament.

“It was an amazing season,” she said. “I took a step back and looked at my accomplishments. I’m trying to kind of not get into my head too much about it.

“You have to practice being positive and being positive when things aren’t going your way,” she said.

And her high school season — girls play in the fall — helps facilitate that positivity.

“I love our high school team so much and they make the sport of golf so much fun,” she said. “My goal for my high school season is just to enjoy myself.”

But don’t take that to mean she will go easy.

“I do want to go to NorCals by the end of senior year,” she said. “That is one of my big goals, big aspirations.”

In the meantime, Leighton is playing loads of golf this summer. And by that we mean every day.

“I usually practice seven days a week, either hitting balls on the range or working on my short game or playing with my friends,” she said. “And in between that, I’m playing tournaments. I’m just trying to play in as many tournaments as I can to get experience. I like playing different courses.”

And those tournaments are the best training ground she can find to both hone her game and how she approaches it.

“I’m trying not to sit on the win and say, ‘Yep, I’m the best,’” she said. “I want to take the win and see what I did right and see what I did wrong. Hopefully in the next tournament I can perform like that again.”

She’ll get her shot early next week. The 67th annual Bumgardner Junior Memorial in Modesto tees off Monday.

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

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