GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Young girls peeked through the crowd and craned their necks at the ShopRite LPGA Classic on Sunday, all for a chance to see their favorite female golfers.
Young fans made up a noticeable segment of the spectators at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club.
So many of them looked for inspiration and took bits and pieces of golfers to nurture their dreams of one day playing professionally.
“I love the sport,” said 15-year-old Danielle Elia, a Little Egg Harbor Township resident and a member of the Pinelands Regional High School team. “I idolize all these people here. I idolize Lexi (Thompson) because she’s young and she’s here. I want to be here at her age, as soon as possible.”
Elia stood near the 18th green waiting for golfers to come off the course. She got autographs from players such as Thompson, who is just two years older than Elia.
Elia also got memorabilia over the weekend and was hoping to get a pink ball from Paula Creamer, who finished tied for eighth in the three-day tournament. Elia got one of her favorite golf items at the 2010 Classic when she caught a glove from Natalie Gulbis. Creamer and Gulbis are her two favorite LPGA players.
On Sunday, Elia had a prime spot on Autograph Alley, where the players walk after they sign their scorecards. The golfers sign autographs and give out balls and gloves. They all keep Sharpie markers in their bags.
They remember being in the same spot with similar dreams.
Thompson isn’t too far removed from where many of the young fans are. She’s just 17 and didn’t play in the Sybase Match Play Championship two weeks ago in Somerset County — she went to her prom instead.
Thompson, who finished tied for fifth with a 6-under for the tournament, hears girls tell her they’re going to play alongside her in a few years.
Thompson already is a role model for these girls.
“Just to see all these little kids out there, I want to portray (that) I am following my dreams and I want them to do the same thing,” Thompson said. “It’s great to hear them. That’s the future of golf.”
Elia watches the golfers and hopes to be like them one day. She’s just a freshman at Pinelands but already succeeding with the varsity team, which consists mostly of boys. She recently shot an even-par 36 at Bey Lea Golf Course in Toms River to earn medalist honors in a match with Monsignor Donovan.
That’s just the first stop for Elia. Soon enough, she wants to be on the other side of the ropes.
“This is big for me,” said Elia. “They’re so inspiring because when you see them play, it’s like a dream. They’re so good. You want to be like them.”
Stacy Lewis, who won the tournament Sunday, loves to hear stories such as Elia’s.
“I want these kids to be dreaming of coming on tour one day and if they have a positive experience here, that’s better for them,” Lewis said. “I’ll sign any autograph for any kid. Sometimes they ask you in the middle of the round because they don’t know any better and you can’t say no to them.”
Lewis was born in Toledo, Ohio, and as a kid would attend the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic every year.
Same dreams. Same wishes. She wanted to play on the LPGA Tour.
Lewis remembers the excitement she felt the day Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, who played on the Tour from 1994-2009, signed her hat.
“It’s little memories like that that make you say ‘Hi’ to a kid or sign a hat,” Lewis said. “It’s something they remember forever.”
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