Canon-McMillan girls golfer Waller displays her game on boys team
Lauren Waller leaned in close while a group of her soon-to-be teammates was talking.
“Yeah,” Waller overheard them saying, “if I could play from the ladies' tees, I'd shoot 35 or 36, too.”
Upon hearing those words on the third day of a five-day tryout to make the Canon-McMillan boys golf team last August, Waller approached Big Macs coach Justin White and asked if she could play from the men's tees at Lindenwood Golf Club.
White, knowing precisely why Waller wanted to make things more difficult on herself, obliged.
“She still beat them,” White said. “She still threw up a good score because she's that good.”
Because Canon-McMillan doesn't field a girls golf team, Waller has made a habit out of beating the boys.
Waller was the medalist in six of Canon-McMillan's 12 matches this season, turning in nine-hole rounds of 38, 36, 35, 33, 35 and 34. Her average nine-hole score: 37.
“I've played with the guys in several tournaments,” said Waller, who recently accepted a full NCAA Division I golf scholarship to Penn State. “I don't think of it as anything.”
Neither did Waynesburg graduate Rachel Rohanna.
Rohanna navigated this quirky format — essentially girls without teams play with the boys for the regular season, then split off for all-female tournaments in the postseason — winning WPIAL and PIAA titles before starring at Ohio State and now on the LPGA Tour.
“I was really happy I could play with the best players,” Rohanna said. “There were definitely some great female golfers, but playing with the guys was a lot of fun.
“Having that experience — playing with the best out there — helped me become a better player.”
Waller, who unlike Rohanna gets to play from the ladies' tees, doesn't harbor animosity toward her male teammates.
If anything, beating the boys makes her feel better about herself given the physiological differences that favor male golfers.
Still, there have been some awkward moments.
“Some of the stuff they talk about on the course, I'll be like, ‘OK, I don't want to hear this,' ” Waller joked. “But when they come up to me and say, ‘You did really well,' it's a little boost. They recognize that I'm a pretty decent golfer.”
Which is a severe understatement for anyone who has seen Waller play.
Knowing she needed to improve her short game following last year's second-place finish at the WPIAL Class AAA individual championships, Waller spent countless hours this summer putting and chipping on and around her family's backyard practice green.
“She understands the value of practice and keeping up with her game,” White said. “She knows the more she works, the greater the payoff is going to be.”
Waller said she doesn't know many of the top female players who will be at this year's WPIAL Class AAA and Class AA individual championships at Hillcrest Country Club in Lower Burrell on Sept. 30.
The primary reason? Waller hasn't been playing with or against local rivals Upper St. Clair's Melissa Kearney or Mia Kness and Synclaire Kuhn from Peters Township. They have actual girls teams.
“I know we're looking to beat each other,” Waller said.
Jefferson-Morgan's Gillian Alexander can identify with that.
Alexander won the WPIAL Class AA title last season after spending match play with her male teammates — and not conversing with Central Valley's Macky Fouse and Maddy McDaniel, two of Alexander's top challengers.
“It's a good experience to go out and play with the boys,” said Alexander, who along with Waller shot 78 at Three Lakes Golf Course last year. “I get a new perspective on golf.
“There's actually a little part of me that misses it once the postseason starts. It's fun, but I'm no longer with my team.”
The male-female dynamic was on display this summer, as Rohanna came to a Waynesburg practice and offered tips to not only the boys but also a pair of first-year female golfers.
“I think the girls were intimidated by me,” Waynesburg coach Jeff Coss said. “In reality, Rachel was 100 times harder on them than I ever am, but I think they were more comfortable with her.”
Comfort has never been an issue with Waller. Especially not when she was trying to join Canon-McMillan's team as a sophomore after spending her freshman year at Shady Side Academy.
“Our boys team is a tight-knit group of guys, but they accepted her,” White said. “I think the first sign was when they saw her golf game and saw that she could play. That was kind of her ‘in' with the group.”