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The Phenom

Livermore’s 14-year-old casie cathrea is ready to take on the LPGA.


At 14, Casie Cathrea is not too young to drive. This becomes apparent on a balmy afternoon at Blackhawk Country Club in Danville, when her tee shot splits the fairway of the first hole. The ball settles in the short grass, an LPGA Tour pro’s distance from the girl who struck it. “Nice shot,” says a spectator. “Dude, not really,” Casie replies, smiling. “I didn’t really catch that one. I let my lower body get too far ahead of me.”

In her pink collared shirt, a ponytail protruding from beneath her golf cap, she could be any kid from the East Bay suburbs, grinning, laughing, peppering her speech with words like “dude.” But to watch her swing a club and then subject herself to her own color commentary is to get a fuller picture of who she really is: a well-adjusted adolescent with adult expectations, a happy high school freshman with a very grown-up game. “I’ve gotten a lot better, no doubt about it,” says Casie (pronounced “Kay-see”). She’s studying her next shot, a challenging approach to a bunker-guarded green. “But that doesn’t mean I still don’t have a ways to go.”

To the casual observer, Casie’s quest for self-improvement is especially impressive, given all the things she has pulled off this year. In September, while her Livermore High classmates were strapping on backpacks, Casie, then 13, strolled the golf course with a caddy and qualified for the CVS Pharmacy LPGA Challenge at Blackhawk, becoming the second-youngest player to earn her way into an LPGA event (the youngest was Michelle Wie at 10).

Early in her first round, she electrified the crowd with a hole in one. (“Five-iron with a fade, bounce-bounce, hole,” was how she later described it.) Subsequent months brought more headline acclaim, highlighted by her win at the California Women’s Amateur

Championship in November, in which she bested a field seasoned with top players more than twice her age. The victory made Casie the second-youngest player ever to capture the state crown (the youngest was Mina Harigae at 12), a staggering achievement that also came across as a natural progression. After all, she made the semifinals in the two previous years.

“From the beginning, we instilled two values,” says Casie’s father, Harry Cathrea. “Take it seriously, and expect to be successful.”

Rare talent can reveal itself unexpectedly. Casie’s showed its face when she was only five, on an outing with her father to the driving range. Harry was an ordinary player, but he recognized that his daughter had a gift. At seven, she was fitted for her own set of clubs, her game analyzed in 3-D video by a Florida swing guru. By age nine, she could beat her dad.

“People ask me, ‘What’s it like to get beat by your daughter?’ ” Harry says. “I tell them, ‘It’s awesome, you should try it sometime.’ ”

Says Casie: “I’ve been into golf almost as long as I can remember. Every time I finish a round, I can’t wait to get back to the course.”

For all the great potential, a prodigy’s path is marked with pitfalls. Casie’s parents are aware of them. Rather than crowding her calendar with junior tournaments around the country, they’ve kept Casie’s competitions mostly local. Golf academies have beckoned, athletic boarding schools where books take a backseat to golf instruction. The Cathreas have opted to keep her home.

Avoiding hectic, costly travel allows the Cathreas to enlist a five-person team of experts to work with Casie on everything from physical fitness and swing mechanics to the mental aspects of the game. While the Cathreas shell out less than the parents of most top players, the sport still exacts a steep financial toll. It’s a price the Cathreas don’t blink at paying.

“One thing that stands out is how much she loves golf,” says Erika Carlson, the Pleasanton-based sports psychologist who works with Casie. “At her age, if athletes aren’t truly in it for themselves, it shows because they start to lose interest. With Casie, the longer she goes, the more she seems to gather steam.”

“Yes!” says Casie, as her putt drops for a birdie on the seventh hole at Blackhawk.  It’s a casual practice round, but she gives a little fist pump. She’s a sweet kid—but don’t stand in her way. When she plays a tournament, she pulls her cap down low over her eyes, so as not to be distracted by the competition. At the grueling five-day California Women’s Amateur, she ran three miles between rounds.

Every shooting star runs the risk of burnout. Casie lessens that peril with a balanced life. At home in Livermore, she relaxes to the tunes of The Scene and Justin Bieber, and plays basketball with her younger brother, Cory, a 12-year-old who has yet to catch the golf bug. In winter, she cuts down on golf to focus on physical fitness. And early this year, her parents transferred her from Livermore High to the Venture School in San Ramon, where a customized curriculum gives Casie stress-free license to pursue her course work—of both kinds.

“Everything she does is catered entirely to her,” her father says. “We want to raise a happy kid, not a robo-pro.”

In golf, as in life, there are no guarantees.

“With a great young player, you never know what the future holds,” says Rick Rhoades, head professional at San Francisco Golf Club and one of Casie’s coaches. “But with Casie, so far, so good.”

Less illustrious onlookers see her success as a given. Earlier this year, a Union City cybersquatter snatched up the domain name casiecathrea.com and tried to use the site to sell golf equipment. When the Cathreas complained, the man offered to sell the web rights to the family. (Casie’s dad then threatened a lawsuit, and the man surrendered the site without receiving a cent).

At some point, Casie’s golf prowess may lead to profit. But, she doesn’t plan to turn pro until she completes college. In the shorter term, she sets ambitious goals that are well within her reach. This year, she hopes to play in two LPGA events, including the tournament at Blackhawk, and to qualify for the U.S. Open.

“After that, we’ll see what’s next,” she says. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

Besides, she now faces another challenge: the par-five ninth at Blackhawk, Casie’s final hole on this golden afternoon. She rips a drive, blisters a three-wood, feathers a sand wedge to three feet. Birdie.

Casie smiles, then hops into a golf cart for a ride back to the clubhouse. Because she’s underage, she’s required to ride shotgun. But, everything in good time.

Someday, she’ll be old enough to take the wheel.

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