Alexa Pano and Paris Hilinksi are best friends with big dreams. As the youngest competitors in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, it’s hard to pick who has the more remarkable story. Hilinski qualified to compete at the Country Club of Charleston after playing golf for only 2 ½ years.
By the time Hilinski took her first golf lesson at age 13, Pano had already starred in “The Short Game” documentary on Netflix, hoisted a trophy at Augusta National and made history as the youngest player to tee it up on the Japan LPGA.
She was so good so fast, it was somewhat surprising that it took her until age 14 to get to her first Women’s Open.
Now the two fast-tracking friends are traveling the country together, trying to stay safe and keeping their circle tight during a global pandemic. At this week’s 120th U.S. Women’s Amateur, where their families are sharing a house, they’re once again two of the youngest players in the field at Woodmont Country Club.
Pano, 15, makes a stunning fifth Women’s Amateur appearance this week in what is her 10th USGA championship. She was runner-up to Yealimi Noh at the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior and lost to Andrea Lee in 23 holes in the Round of 16 at last year’s Women’s Amateur. Both Noh and Lee are now rookies on the LPGA.
“I felt like last year I put myself in a great position and I got beat,” said Pano. “This year I kind of want to avenge that, if anything.”
And should Pano and Hilinski meet in match play at this year’s contest?
“I think if we played against each other I would win, of course,” said Hilinski.
It’s that way with everything with these two. Even a card game, said Hilinski, can feel like the Super Bowl.
“Paris always wants to be taller,” said Pano. “I always want to be shorter. Everyone has to convince me that I’m 5’11.”
Hilinski, 16, hits it about 270 yards off the tee and says she checks in at 5 feet 10 inches (and a half). The gym is one area that Pano readily concedes to Hilinski. Both work in Jupiter, Florida, with Joey Diovisalvi, or “Joey D,” golf’s trainer to the stars (think Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Lexi Thompson), though Hilinski has been at it much longer. Hilinski’s background in basketball and soccer training also adds to her natural strength.
“I’m pushing myself to get to her level,” said Pano, “which I will.”
They’re both vegan and have taken online classes for years. During the first six weeks of the pandemic, Pano completed an entire semester’s worth of schoolwork. Both train and study year-round and are set to graduate in 2022.
When golf courses shut down in Palm Beach County, Pano and her father drove 90 minutes each way to Port St. Lucie just to find an open driving range.
Ask them for a summer highlight from 2020 and both will point to an 18-hour car ride home from Arkansas, where the two teens traveled with their dads to compete in a Women’s All-Pro Tour event. Pano finished second there to LPGA pro Maria Fassi, who jokingly told the new vegan where she could grab a good plate of ribs.
By all accounts, it was 18 hours of belly laughs all the way back to South Florida.
“I must have accidentally drunk a gallon of sugar,” said Hilinski.
In the beginning of her playing career, Hilinski worked with Bryan Lebedevitch, Cristie Kerr’s longtime coach, at the PGA West Golf Academy in La Quinta, California. Now she’s with Claude Harmon III at the Floridian in Palm City. During the break from competition this spring, she spent time practicing with Koepka.
“Most of the stuff that I found really beneficial was how he mentally thinks about things,” said Hilinski, “how he thinks about bad shots when he doesn’t hit it great. Most of the time you’re not going to hit it perfect.”
LPGA player Mel Reid is another pro who spends time with Hilinski in Florida.
“Her work ethic is pretty special,” said Reid. “There’s really no limit with her.”
The same has been said about Pano, whose middle name could’ve been prodigy. Both teens like to see how far they can push.
“We both know what we want,” said Hilinski. “Both of us, I think, will do anything to get there.”
120th U.S. Women’s Amateur
|Where||Woodmont Country Club, Rockville, Maryland|
|Format||Stroke play Monday and Tuesday, with the top 64 players advancing to match play Wednesday-Sunday|
|Defending champ||Gabriela Ruffels|
|How to watch||Golf Channel:
Wednesday-Thursday, 4-7 p.m. ET
Friday, 1-4 p.m. ET
Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET
Sunday, 1-4 p.m. ET