With state golf in Aspen, AHS girls see opportunity to showcase rising program

Class 3A tournament begins Tuesday at Aspen Golf Club

Aspen High School junior Brooke O'Sullivan, right, watches as sophomore Audrey Woodrow putts during practice on Monday, May 29, 2023, ahead of the Class 3A girls state golf tournament at Aspen Golf Club.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Arguably the two most important rounds in the history of the Aspen High School girls golf program have arrived and it feels as if the Skiers have already won.

Long a team that was nothing more than an afterthought during the spring, AHS girls golf is suddenly thriving and now is set to host the Class 3A girls golf state championship on Tuesday and Wednesday at Aspen Golf Club.

“I think I’m feeling it. I don’t know if I am completely aware of how big a thing this is,” coach Shannon Day said after Monday’s official practice round. “Something happens at some age with junior golf where boys just keep playing and not a lot of girls do. I think for young girls who are in junior golf or even just thinking about golf or their dads golf or their moms golf, to see some high school girls competing at state at this level, I think it’s huge for the program. I haven’t made this program what it is. Brooke and Lenna have.”

Day (formerly Worth) is in her third season as the team’s head coach, having previously served as an assistant under Martha Richards, the former athletic director who returned to college coaching at the University of Denver.

In Day’s short tenure, AHS girls golf has undergone a complete transformation. That journey began under Richards, who in 2019 qualified three players — Zoe Guthrie, Avery Hirsch and Hailey Higdon — allowing the Skiers to compete as a team at state for the first time in program history.

And key to the Skiers’ most recent jump forward has been the emergence of junior Brooke O’Sullivan and sophomore Lenna Persson, who could have Aspen in the mix this week in the state tournament.

“I don’t feel it now, either, but there will be a lot of nerves tomorrow,” Persson said after Monday’s practice round, mirroring a feeling felt by O’Sullivan. “We qualified as a team and we qualified first as a team, so we already did something amazing this season. If that’s how it will end up, that’s really exciting, too. But, obviously, I’m going to go out there and play to the best of my ability, and I’m really excited for the next couple of days.”

Two years ago, it was O’Sullivan who emerged as a freshman and gave the program a young star to build around. She ultimately finished 10th at the 3A tournament that spring at Elmwood Golf Course.

However, she would miss the entirety of her sophomore golf season after a knee injury suffered playing basketball during the winter. She did heal in time for a busy summer of playing golf, but has battled through an up-and-down junior campaign.

O’Sullivan shot 84 and tied for fifth place at the regional tournament last week at Yampa Valley Golf Course.

Aspen High School’s Brooke O’Sullivan lines up a putt during a practice round on Monday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“This season honestly hasn’t been that great for me. I definitely haven’t been shooting the scores I know I’m capable of shooting,” O’Sullivan admitted. “I don’t think the nerves have hit me yet. It doesn’t feel like I’m practicing for state. When you travel somewhere else, it’s definitely more surreal because it took time to get there.”

Monday’s practice round certainly didn’t have that championship vibe, but that should change Tuesday when the full fanfare of the tournament kicks in. For the Aspen golfers, Monday felt oddly normal as they were able to casually roll out of bed and onto the course for a rather calm round of golf.

Tuesday morning will be about turning on that competitive fire, something that may naturally come easier for golfers when they are playing on a course far from home.

“I get a little superstitious and I try to keep things consistent, for the most part, just in morning routines and night routines. Sometimes it gets a little bit excessive,” Persson said, to O’Sullivan’s amusement. “I’m happy with how I’m playing. I spent a lot of time on the range this past weekend and I feel confident in what I’m doing. That makes me feel a sense of calmness.”

With O’Sullivan out with injury last spring, it was Persson, then a freshman, who filled the void. She surprised many by winning the regional tournament in Alamosa, then finished 12th in the state tournament at The Broadlands.

Last week, Persson repeated as regional champion by winning at Yampa Valley and now eyes a top-10 finish, if not better, this week in Aspen.

“She is so locked in right now. She has the potential to do anything she wants,” Day said of Persson. “She is a player and has her priorities straight. She makes it work. There are no excuses. She is just a straight shooter and a student-athlete, truly.”

This week at Aspen Golf Club will be the first time the team’s star duo will play together at the state championship. Persson is part of the very first group off of the No. 1 tee at 9 a.m. Tuesday, alongside Rye’s Emma Garcia and St. Mary’s Academy superstar Maddy Bante.

O’Sullivan is in the next group, teeing off at 9:10 a.m., alongside Rye’s Olivia Donlon and St. Mary’s Academy’s Reese Brown. Tee times and pairings for the second and final round on Wednesday are dependent on results from Tuesday.

“She has all the same potential,” Day said of O’Sullivan, comparing her to Persson. “She does have high expectations for herself, and I think she should. That’s a good thing. She has one of the best swings you’ve ever seen. They all can do it.”

Aspen High School sophomore Lenna Persson looks back toward her teammates after finishing a practice round on Monday at Aspen Golf Club. She’ll be in the first group to tee off at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

For winning the regional tournament in Craig, the Skiers do have a full foursome teeing off this week in Aspen. Sophomore Audrey Woodrow tees off in the third group off the first hole at 9:20 a.m., while sophomore Madison Nelson is in the fourth group that tees off at 9:30 a.m.

The team score comes from the combined scores of the top three players — meaning team’s with a roster of four can drop their lowest score — so key to Aspen’s success as a group could be how Woodrow and Nelson shoot behind O’Sullivan and Persson.

While Nelson is a first-time state qualifier, Woodrow is returning for the second time. She finished 54th at The Broadlands last spring as a freshman.

“She is so consistent and also mentally very mature and makes really good decisions on the course and knows how to score. We need her, and we need Madison,” Day said of Woodrow. “(Nelson) could be the third score. She has that potential, too. That’s why it’s so fun. It’s really a team effort.”

According to the CHSAA Golf rankings through iWanamaker, the Skiers enter the state tournament ranked No. 4 in 3A behind No. 3 Berthoud, No. 2 Prospect Ridge and No. 1 Peak to Peak. Individually, Persson comes in ranked No. 5 and O’Sullivan No. 7, with St. Mary’s Bante at the top of the list.

St. Mary’s Academy won the 3A title last spring — they also won it all in 2021 — cruising by 43 strokes over runner-up Prospect Ridge. With only two golfers, Aspen High School did not record a team score last season. Bante is the reigning individual 3A state champion, having shot 71-73 to win by two strokes over Peak to Peak’s Noelle Thompson last spring at The Broadlands.

Regardless of where Aspen ends up on the scoreboard this week, even the younger players like Persson realize that by hosting state golf for the first time, it really puts the program on the map and has the potential to elevate girls golf in the Roaring Fork Valley.

So, it’s kind of a no-lose situation for the Skiers.

“I’m sure it felt a little different, and they feel what is happening,” Day said of the growing championship vibe after Monday’s practice round. “It is a big deal. But they are also loose and relaxed and they are ready. It’s fun. We are in the mix, which is fun. We are not expected to do something crazy, and we could. We’ll see what happens.”

The public is allowed to walk the golf course during both rounds Tuesday and Wednesday. Talking to players during play, which may be construed as giving advice, is not allowed.

The two-day, 36-hole tournament is scheduled to conclude Wednesday late afternoon with the awards ceremony.

“It seems like in girls sports and in smaller sports, we don’t get as much attention and not enough people care about us,” Persson said of Aspen hosting the state championship. “But this makes it seem like more people care.”