FITCHBURG — Seul-Ki Hawley picked her ball out of the cup at the 18th hole in the 111th Massachusetts Open golf championship Tuesday to cap one of the most memorable events of her career. She hugged her caddie — her husband Scott Hawley — took a photo with a teenage female golfer, and finally got to take a seat. A stranger bought her and Scott lemonade, and others interrupted with congratulatory praise.
“You’re an inspiration,” they’d say. “You’re amazing.”
Hawley has been competing against men for years. She’s used to it. But this was different. At Oak Hill Country Club this week, she became the first woman to compete in Massachusetts’s signature event, and she did it while 20 weeks pregnant.
“When you have people who say they look up to you or as an inspiration, that’s really a blessing to me,” Hawley said. “And I’m really grateful I can be in that situation. But also motivation for me to continue on to try to create a pavement for female golfers.”
Though Hawley missed the cut by 15 strokes, her participation was an unequivocal accomplishment. Empowering the next generation of female golfers means a lot to the Winchester Country Club pro. And just being able to compete was a major feat, considering this was Hawley’s first round of golf since February because of a particularly rough first trimester of her pregnancy.
“Being the first here will be remembered by a lot of people,” Hawley said. “And I think it opens the door for hopefully more women to maybe try to qualify and play in this event.”
Hawley was the golfer to watch despite finishing 21 over par for the tournament. A dozen spectators took cellphone videos of her drive on the ninth hole. During a rain delay Monday, an Oak Hill CC member introduced herself, and she and Hawley bonded over their similarly timed pregnancies (Seul-Ki, 35, and Scott, 43, are expecting their first child, a girl, on Halloween).
Hawley’s road to the event wasn’t a straight shot. She qualified by finishing fourth in the New England PGA sectional championship in 2019 and ranking in the top 20 among club pros in the section. But in the weeks after she became pregnant in February, she felt so sick that she had no driving range sessions, no practice rounds. She lost 10 pounds as her appetite diminished before she started feeling better about three weeks ago.
“The fact she hadn’t played any golf, picked up a club — forget that it’s a men’s tournament,” said Scott, a former pro himself. “Just going onto a golf course rusty, let alone all the men, all the interviews, everything. That’s nothing I would ever do.”
Hawley was surprised when she discovered there had never been a female entrant in the Mass. Open, which is the only Mass Golf event open to both amateurs and professionals and has a $75,000 purse. Mark Purrington from Dartmouth, one of her playing partners, said he too was surprised when he learned she was making history.
The shock wore off on the course, where Hawley encountered the toughest layout she has played. She struggled with the less-than-optimal conditions on the first day, shooting 85. Even with near-perfect weather Tuesday, the length and elevation of the course forced Hawley into a safe approach to make up for her relative lack of driving power from the same tees as the men.
Part of that strategy came from Scott, who advised his wife before every shot. On the 12th hole, Hawley faced a 434-yard dogleg-left par-4. Purrington and Colin Brennan drilled deep drives over the trees and onto the fairway. Hawley doesn’t have that kind of ball flight in her arsenal, so she aimed her drive to hug the trees and roll.
She perfectly executed the shot, setting her up about 20 yards behind the men. She put her second shot 15 feet from the pin, leading to her second of three straight pars on the back nine.
Five holes later, on a par-3 where the green sits just over a pond and between two sand traps, Hawley lofted a beautiful tee shot that settled about 10 feet from the flag, clearing the way for a birdie.
Hawley finished the round 6 over par, with three birdies and no double bogeys. But her impact went beyond any scorecard. Abby Stone, the 15-year-old high school golfer from Fitchburg who posed for a picture with Hawley and exchanged Instagrams after her round, said it was important for her to see a woman competing vs. men. Her father, Gary, called Hawley “the perfect inspiration” for a daughter with collegiate golf aspirations.
“Just encourage girls to play,” Hawley said. “Whatever level they want to play, whether it’s high school, college golf, trying out to be a professional, it’s so important to have people to talk to, leaders or mentors that you can look up to and get advice from.”