I caddied for Christina Kim last week at the LPGA event in Cincinnati. I arrived early on Monday, and after some practice, we played six holes before Christina decided to rest. So I hustled over to cover the Monday qualifier playoff. After it had finished, I was walking by the clubhouse when I saw a player decked out in University of Texas gear, right down to her bag, standing alone and sporting a big grin.
Faith Kilgore was smiling for good reason. She had just Monday-qualified for her first LPGA event. What a journey it has been.
Kilgore took up the game at the age of 12, but the course she played, Quicksand (yes, Quicksand) Golf Club in Wimberley, Texas, didn't have a range. So Faith's father, Paul, strung up a net between two trees in the backyard, tied a sheet to it, begged for and got a mat from a golf shop, and fashioned a hitting area. It became known as "The Cage."
When Faith outgrew that version of The Cage, Paul tied an old trampoline net to the garage of their modest home about 40 miles southwest of Austin. Faith would stand on a mat in the middle of the driveway and pound ball after ball into the net. They left it hanging until neighbors complained, so they took it down each night after her practice. She was playing at Quicksand when she wasn't doing that, a course that doesn’t have a website, only a Facebook page. It’s a place where you can grab a burger for $2 and an 18-hole green fee will cost you a mere $30. We all know places like Quicksand, but how many of them are turning out LPGA players?
Faith continued to improve in high school and had dreams of playing Division I golf. But golf is expensive, and with three other children to support, the Kilgores didn’t have disposable income to travel around the country. Faith never played a tournament outside the state until her first college tournament.
Phillip Nelson, the coach at tiny Colorado Christian near Denver, was perusing a golf recruiting website when he stumbled upon Faith. When Nelson offered almost a full scholarship, Faith committed to CCU.
Colorado Christian has an undergraduate student population of less than 5,000. "It looks like a couple of apartment buildings," Faith replied when asked to describe the campus. Although she was named conference Freshman of the Year in the 2018-19 season, she averaged almost 77. She wasn’t even considering a future in professional golf.
The Cougars lost a year to Covid, but in her second season, Kilgore showed marked improvement. Her average for the season was 75, she won a tournament, and she led the team in almost every statistic. She started to think about bigger things.
Because she had grown up not far from campus, Texas had always been a dream, and with the Longhorns losing four players, Kilgore believed there might be an opportunity. She entered the transfer portal at the 11th hour, in late June 2021, but not without telling Nelson, “It's Texas or nothing. if I don't go there, I'll come back.” The next day, she got through at qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. As she left the course, she decided it would be a good time to call Texas coach Ryan Murphy. She was waiting for traffic to clear when her cell phone rang. It was Murphy.
He offered her a chance to walk on, and she quickly accepted. There was a problem, however. Texas wouldn't accept some of her credits from CCU, so she stayed another year in Denver and completed her sociology degree.
The following year, with her sociology degree in hand and one more year of eligibility remaining, Murphy again offered Kilgore a chance to walk on. That summer, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur for the second consecutive year. Her good play wasn’t going unnoticed. Murphy called again, this time with great news. She was awarded with an almost full-ride scholarship. Her dream had come true; she would be a scholarship golfer at the University of Texas.
Unfortunately, dreams don't always end as we envision. Kilgore qualified for only one event, shooting 82-74-77. During Christmas break, she started contemplating a future outside of professional golf.
In May, she took a job with Pioneer Golf Travel, selling high-end golf trips. She was living in Austin with her older sister. She loved the job, but the lure of pro golf tugged at her heart. She called her father often to discuss it, and he encouraged her to chase her dreams.
There was no press conference, no interview, no article. Faith Kilgore turned pro quietly, writing to her boss in an email: "I hope to wear the logo for the world to see, but I have to make the difficult decision to concentrate on professional golf full-time."
Tanya and Paul Kilgore had worked hard, helping their four children to graduate from college debt-free, but funding a pro golf career was out of the question. Paul works for the transit rail system in Austin, and Tanya is a retail store manager. They would do whatever they could to support Faith, but she would have to find the money to make it work.
The couple had downsized to a one-bedroom home outside of Austin. The property included a building the previous owner had used as an art studio. They offered it to Faith. It was barely big enough to fit her single bed and desk, but you couldn’t beat the free rent. Paul also talked with a friend who offered Faith $5,000 to kick-start her career.
Faith moved home and practiced at Vaaler Creek Golf Club, where she had worked during high school and college breaks. The summer heat can be brutal in Texas, though, so she thought it better to return to Denver to practice for a month before the Monday qualifier in Cincinnati. She called former teammates to see if she could stay with them. They agreed, so she packed her 2017 Hyundai and made the 14-hour drive to Colorado.
She pounded ball after ball at the Colorado Christian home course and slept on two foam cushions on a teammate's floor. When she felt like she was intruding on her six teammates, she would head to the parents of another teammate and sleep in their spare bedroom. This routine continued for a month.
Kilgore flew to Cincinnati and stayed with the parents of her former CCU coach; Nelson is now the coach at Murray State. To get around, she borrowed the couple’s extra car. LPGA Mondays have live scoring, but she never looked at her phone. There were 32 players in the field, competing for two spots. When she tapped in to complete a 2-under 70, her caddie, Aron Walker, an assistant pro at Kenwood, told her she was in. Kilgore stood silently, too stunned to speak.
That is when I saw Faith. Nothing defines the Monday grind more than experiencing the biggest moment of your life and having no one there to share it with. As we talked, her phone lit up with messages from teammates, friends and people she hadn't heard from in years. Faith Kilgore was going to tee it up in an LPGA event.
Back at work in Austin, Tanya Kilgore had been tirelessly refreshing the leaderboard while at work. Upon getting confirmation her daughter had made it through, she started screaming. Some longtime customers shared in the celebration.
Throughout Faith's golf career, Paul often used the term "one more." In other words, make one more birdie. When she turned on her phone after the qualifier, the first message she saw was from her dad. The text was a mere two words and had been delivered in all caps: one more. Paul had sent it from work after Faith's 17th hole. She birdied the last to avoid the playoff and get in.
When the tee times were announced, as luck would have it, Christina and Faith were in the same group. I would get an up-close look at her game for at least 36 holes. Aron Walker stayed on her bag. (I’m not sure who was more nervous Aron or Faith)
At 2:20 on Thursday afternoon, we went off the 10th tee. Tanya and Paul had flown in, having taken time off of work. "We wouldn't miss this moment for anything," Tanya said as Paul nodded in agreement.
A player who Monday-qualifies for her first LPGA event with almost no big-time tournament experience doesn't figure to stand much of a chance. I was concerned Faith would post some big numbers. Unsurprisingly, her opening tee shot was a poorly hit hook that ended far left of the fairway. My fears grew that we were about to witness a couple of days filled with learning experiences.
Her second shot at the par-4 found the green, however, and as the group walked up the fairway, Christina gave her a high-five. Faith made a routine par, and when her first round as a professional was over, she signed for a steady 1-over 73, two birdies offset by three bogeys.
As was the case on Thursday, the second round featured some wayward shots but a world-class short game. Faith ripped off 11 consecutive pars to start her day, and then she birdied two of the next three holes. She wouldn’t make the cut in her first start, would she? But she bogeyed the par-5 16th and needed to hole a 60-foot chip shot at the last to make the cut. It narrowly missed. She also missed the short par putt. With a 1-over total, she finished two shots over the cut line.
Christina was in Faith’s ear for two days, and the young pro soaked in all the advice. After Faith signed her card on Friday, Christina told her parents and her what a fantastic person Faith was and that she had the game to compete. Many tears were shed, and Tanya and Paul continually thanked Christina for her help.
On Saturday, Christina and I reached the 1st green to find Faith in the gallery. She followed us around for most of the day in the Kenwood sweater she had bought to commemorate her first LPGA start.
She and I talked after the round, and by then the reality of her financial situation had set in. Factoring in entry fees, a caddie, gas, meals and plane tickets, she had burned through almost $2,000 of the $5,000 she had put in the bank. She vowed to get to the following Monday qualifier in Arkansas later in the month.
When we talked again on Monday, she was driving from Denver to Austin, putting another 1,000 miles on a Hyundai whose odometer was already pushing 120,000 miles. It was time to return to the tiny apartment and get in some practice for the next Monday qualifier.
The grind continues. The dream lives on.