By Kurt Dusterberg
When Catherine Ashworth was a little girl her dad would take her out while he played a few holes in the evenings.
“I would strap her car seat on the golf cart and play a little bit, maybe three to five holes a couple nights a week,” Steve Ashworth explained.
Before long, Catherine had her own clubs. Playing with her dad and older brother, Harrison, she longed to play as well as they did. So dad gave her a little incentive. Golfing at Bentwinds Golf and Country Club, the family’s home course in Fuquay-Varina, he challenged her to make par on a par 5.
“He said, ‘If you par it from the blue tees, I will give you a $100,” Catherine said. “I would say, ‘Aw, c’mon Dad, let me do it from the white tees.’ He would say, ‘No, you’ve got to do it from the blue tees.’
“Eventually, after all those nights of trying to get it to work, I did it. Then he handed me that $100 bill and it was the greatest feeling.”
That par payoff might have dropped a spot on Ashworth’s list of golf achievements recently, after winning the 34th Junior North & South Amateur Championship at Pinehurst in July. Ashworth carded 71-73-73, good for a five-shot victory.
Ashworth began the opening round with a bogey, but then she carded three straight birdies. She was just one stroke back of the lead after 18 holes before setting the pace after two rounds.
“I had never really been in contention after the first and second day, and I was kind of nervous,” Ashworth said. “I didn’t know how to respond. I was OK at the beginning of the round. But the last two or three holes, I was nervous. But I fought it and it paid off. It was tiring, but it was awesome.”
Despite the nerves that crept in over the final holes, she managed to find her confidence over the final holes.
“Especially with my driver,” said Ashworth, a 15-year old sophomore at Fuquay-Varina High School. “I would look at something out in the fairway – like I would pick a tree – and I would think, I know where this is going to go. That was a good feeling. I was dialed in on my irons, just knowing when to take a risk and knowing when not to.”
There was a time when Ashworth’s athletic future seemed destined for courts rather than courses. A few years ago, she was the 30th-ranked tennis player in her age division in North Carolina. That’s when she experienced a life changing foot fault.
“It was snowing, and I was standing on a sled,” she said. “I fell off and I broke my growth plate. I had to take off around eight months. I was at the top of my game when I broke my ankle. It didn’t really go back to where it was.”
With tennis on hold, she turned back to golf without much concern.
“Things happen for a reason,” she said. “I always got the question, ‘which do you like better: tennis or golf?’ And I never had an answer. I liked them about the same. I hadn’t committed to one or the other.”
Besides, Ashworth soon realized that she couldn’t pursue all of her athletic interests. In addition to golf and tennis, she played two years of middle school volleyball – three prep sports that are played in the fall season.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she laughs. “I should have planned a little better.”
Today, golf is her focus, although she has not abandoned her other interests. She still plays a little neighborhood tennis, and she swims in a summer league as well as for her high school.
Like so many successful athletes, Ashworth takes pride in reaching new benchmarks – just as she viewed that $100 par-5 prize from her dad.
“When you’re in that range where you’re on the verge of breaking 80, you’re trying to get to those 70s. Finally when you do it, you think, I can do it again and again.
“Then when I broke 70, I thought, I can do this if I stay focused and motivated and I practice. It starts paying off in all the tournaments you play, and then in the North & South. You start to realize that everything you are doing is paying off.”
Ashworth has relied on some helpful tutors along the way. She works with former touring pro Kent Kluba, and receives support from Bentwinds’ pros Evelyn Kinlaw and Zac Collins.
Kluba, who played on the Ben Hogan Tour in the early 1990s and later on the European and Asian professional tours, has coached Ashworth for about three years. He thinks she is just beginning to unlock her potential.
“Physically, her best attribute is that she hits the ball like a guy,” Kluba said. “She is strong.”
He has also helped her be mentally tough, learning to work through the rounds when she doesn’t have her best game. By Kluba’s estimation, she reached a new plateau in July.
“When she won the North & South, she didn’t have to grind except for a few holes on the last day,” he said. “Now she has played good golf and beaten a good field. I’m anxious to see where she goes from that feeling. I think she won’t be satisfied unless she gets a few wins here and there.”
Ashworth also draws some of her inspiration from her brother, who now plays college golf for Campbell.
“When we would play in the evenings when we were little I always thought he was the best player,” she said. “He was especially a big influence seeing him in tournament golf and seeing how his success went. Then going into college golf inspired me as well.”
With nearly three years of high school ahead, Ashworth has plenty of time to consider college golf. Besides, after finishing 10th in the state championships as a freshman, she has her eye on some high school hardware. Her goal is to be the conference player of the year in the Tri-Nine.
For now, no one is dangling any $100 bills for big moments, but that’s not to say she doesn’t enjoy the spoils of victory. After winning the North & South she headed to a local restaurant and indulged in a victory meal.
“I had a BLT and egg salad sandwich,” she said enthusiastically. “That was my celebration lunch. It tasted like heaven after three days of hard work.”