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Young golfer sets high goals

Column by RANDY HAMMERICKSEN

She appears confident as she goes through her pre-shot routine.

Her Great Big Bertha driver is in hand. Tai Kinney is primed to coilthat driver through her backswing and whack another long, straight drive.

Kinney, 14, belies her reputation as a human golf ball-striking machinebecause of her small stature (5-foot-2, 106 pounds.) She looks like sheshould be going home to sort out her doll collection. Not banging golf ballswith fury.

UNTIL SHE CUTS LOOSE on a drive. Then, you understand how the legendof Tai has grown in the Rogue Valley among golfers, especially young golfers.

Knowing the legend of Tai, the child sensation of girls golf in Medford,I'm not surprised as I watch her pound out drives on the range at CedarLinks Golf Course. I've seen this show before (in a junior tournament).But she was only 12 years old then.

Kinney belts one long drive after another into the warm air. Most ballstravel 200 to 220 yards, an increase of nearly 50 yards over the distanceshe generated two years ago.

Most of her shots fly with a slight right-to-left action, giving hera controlled draw.

Kinney's reaction: No big deal. Run of the mill.

Typical drives for the Korean-born girl, who was adopted by Karin andRob Kinney at age 2 months. She has lived in Medford since.

A fierce competitor who rarely smiles when she's playing golf, Kinneyhas always had a natural attraction to golf, according to her mother.

We got Tai a set of plastic golf clubs when she was about 4 yearsold, and she caught on real fast, says Karin Kinney. She seemedto enjoy swinging those little clubs and hitting plastic balls. It's kindof gone from there.

WHERE IT'S GONE IS amazing. Kinney is one of the top girls junior golfersin her state, if not the Northwest. She will enter North Medford High nextspring, where she is expected to immediately seize the No. — position onthe school's girls golf team.

But there's more to Tai's athletic story. Kinney, a catcher in fastpitchsoftball, is expected to make the North Medford varsity team, the defendingClass 4A state champion, as the back-up to all-state catcher Missy Coe,who will be a senior.

In addition to playing summer fastpitch softball and dominating the SouthernOregon girls junior golf scene in recent years, Tai has established herselfas a quality student. She produced a perfect 4.0 grade-point average intwo years at Hedrick Middle School.

IF THAT'S NOT ENOUGH, Kinney established new Hedrick weight-lifting recordsfor girls at 425 pounds (for one lift each) in the bench press, squat liftand clean.

I lifted twice a day at Hedrick this year, says Kinney, whohas increased her driving distance steadily as her strength has increased.

Kinney says she practices golf almost every day of the year. She livesthree blocks from Cedar Links Golf Course in east Medford and walks thereto practice and play. She also plays and practices regularly at Quail PointGolf Course, she's a sponsored junior member at Rogue Valley Country Cluband she plays almost every other course in Southern Oregon.

As long as I don't get bored playing one course too much, I don'tget burned out on golf, she says.

Kinney's goal is to play softball and women's golf for Arizona StateUniversity in five years. A career on the Ladies Professional Golf Associationwould follow college, if her dream plays out as planned.

It's going to take a lot of work, she says. But I'mwilling to do it.

KINNEY WON THE ROGUE VALLEY section of the Big I Insurance Classic golftournament recently at Rogue Valley Country Club. She shot a round of 79on the outside course of RVCC, which plays to a par of 72. For men. Notfor 14-year-old girls.

Tai has scored better and won bigger titles.

At age 13, she shot rounds of 77 and 76 at Cedar Links to win the 1996women's city golf championship. Most of the top female golfers in the regionparticipated and Tai came from behind to stun some of the older players.

It was fun and I would like to do it again, says Kinney,who will travel to Portland to play in the Peter Jacobsen Junior Golf Tournamentnext week.

Tai's younger sister, 10-year-old Kacie Kinney, will play in the girls8-11 division of the tournament. Kacie is not related to Tai but was alsoadopted and is of Korean heritage.

Kacie Kinney also swings a golf club fluidly. Her average score is about98, according to Rob Kinney.

She's going to be good, too,, says Rob. She alreadyhas a beautiful swing.

QUAIL POINT HEAD PROFESSIONAL Mike Byrd is the primary teacher for Taiand Kacie. Byrd is impressed with the work ethic and the devotion to thegame that both girls show him.

Tai has the concentration of a 30-year-old, says Byrd. Sheis 10 years ahead of her time as far as her mental approach to the game.

We recently went through a swing change for her because we weretrying to get rid of a loop in her swing, says Byrd. She hit200 balls a day for three weeks until she did it.

Bruce Howell, Medford School District athletic director, says Kinneywill be allowed to play softball and golf next spring for North Medford.

It will be a matter of the young lady talking to the coaches andcommunicating with them about practice times and plans, says Howell.It may be that she can practice with the softball team and practicegolf on her own, at least part of the time.

Our district takes pride in offering kids all of the opportunitiesthat they can get, says Howell.

Randy Hammericksen is the Mail Tribune's sports columnist. He can bereached at 776-4499.