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Bohls: Texas' Papp fully engaged with her upcoming pro golf career and future marriage

Texas' Kaitlyn Papp finished tied for ninth as an amateur in last year's U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in Houston and is ready for her professional debut in this year's tournament in San Francisco, starting Thursday.
  • Kaitlyn Papp picking up the nuances of the pro golf career after four years at Texas.
  • Lake Travis product tied for ninth in last year's U.S. Women's Open to give her loads of confidence.
  • The 23-year-old set a school record at Texas for lowest career scoring average.

Kaitlyn Papp acknowledges she has a lot to learn.

A whole lot.

After all, she’s been a professional golfer for, oh, about 20 or 30 minutes and already understands how much there is to decipher and digest after college life. There’s the taxing golf courses on the LPGA Tour and the incredible stress she must deal with as well as the everyday rigors of traveling on the road.

“Yeah, I’ve learned it is hard to keep your bags under 50 pounds when you’re traveling to the airport,” Papp said with a laugh Tuesday. “Somehow you just got to make it work.”

Yeah, that, too.

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Papp would dearly love to learn how to squeeze the Harton S. Semple Trophy into her suitcase under the baggage limit. Playing in just her second U.S. Open last December, she stole the show as the low amateur and finished in the top 10.

“I think I’ve always been taught to hate bogey more than I love birdie,” said the intense perfectionist. “I feel like I don’t get overly excited when I have a good hole. That week definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”

Kaitlyn Papp, left, congratulates Hinako Shibuno following the conclusion of the third round of last year's U.S. Women's Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston. Papp finished ninth, which secured a spot in this year's tournament, and was the top amateur.

But as good as she is, the four-time Texas All-American isn’t putting any undue expectations on herself like capturing the Semple Trophy or the $1 million first-place money as she makes her pro debut on Thursday in the U.S. Women’s Open at the challenging Olympic Club Lake Course outside San Francisco.

With 13 former U.S. Open champions and 11 more runners-up in the field of 156 golfers, Papp knows the competition will be stiff when she tees off Thursday afternoon.

It’s clearly been a whirlwind time for the homegrown Papp, who has actually lived all over the world, including Japan, as the daughter of a Navy Medical Service Corps officer.

Besides finishing her college career in tough fashion when she lost her final match in 22 holes and Texas bowed out against Ole Miss in the NCAA quarterfinals, she also became engaged when her longtime boyfriend, Jake Budde, proposed to her on the 9th green at the Foothills course at Barton Creek Resort recently. Budde, too, plays golf, competing for two years at the College of Charleston.

“He tricked me into saying we were going out to celebrate his birthday early,” Papp said. “So we got all dressed up. He’d set up a little flag that said, ‘Will you marry me?’ It was cute. It was definitely a really sweet surprise.”

And even though at 23, she’s older than some of these ladies who all but grew up on the Tour and started their professional careers in their early teenage years, she’s savvy enough not to put extra burdens on herself. Inbee Park was the youngest Open winner ever at 19.

Not everyone can be Lydia Ko, the Korean-born New Zealander who won an LPGA event at age 15 and won six times before she turned 18. Or Lexi Thompson, who won twice as a 16-year-old. For every 18-year-old winner like Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer and Jessica Korda, there are countless others knocking on the door with great games.

Fifteen in the field this week are 20 years old or younger. And 14-year-old Chloe Kovelesky will be the youngest since Luci Li competed in the 2014 Open at the tender age of 11.

So, no pressure?

“Not really. I think every person has their own path, and for me staying in college all four years worked for me,” said Papp, who graduated in three-and-a-half years and is already taking online grad school courses in sports management. “But for those players turning pro at 15 or 16, that worked well for them. So I don’t feel a huge rush or feel like I’m behind, so to say.”

Texas' Kaitlyn Papp and her teammates fell in the NCAA quarterfinals to Ole Miss, but she has picked up tips and advice from former Lake Travis teammate Kristen Gillman and feels ready for her pro career.

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She would have been among 30 other amateurs in the field, but she felt like after playing four seasons for the Longhorns and getting her degree last December, she was ready to turn pro.

Papp may not have accomplished every goal she wanted in her four years at Texas, but she left with the lowest career scoring average in school history as well as the best single-season average.

Her career average was an impressive 71.76 score as the Lake Travis product finished this season at a stunning 71.1. Surprisingly, she won two tournaments as a freshman, but never won again despite some great golf.

“My first thought is winning is hard,” Texas coach Ryan Murphy said. “It’s so difficult. If you go way back, I think Michiko Hattori (1987-91) won 10 times when she was at Texas. But the most anyone has won since is three times in a career. She had some close calls in places.”

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Her coach wasn’t surprised Papp turned pro now.

“She could have come back and have that year back (from the pandemic),” Murphy said. “She had that option. But she’s ready. What Pappy did in the last U.S. Open said a lot. It shows she’s capable of playing with the best in the world and doing everything they can do. From a skills standpoint, she’s absolutely ready.”

Just six months ago, she competed in her second U.S. Open — she missed the cut in that major the year before — and had a spectacular performance. She was so consistent that she made the top 10 to qualify this year and finish ninth after scoring a birdie on the final hole and winning low-amateur honors.

“That final round was definitely a grind,” Papp said. “I feel like the weather was kind of a nice distraction, not thinking about being in the top 10 or whatnot.”

Despite the muddy conditions on that Sunday at Champions Golf Club and the stress of competing down the stretch in a major and sitting in a tie for fifth entering the last day, Papp played such consistent golf that she put herself in contention after shooting rounds of 71-68-74 the first three days on the Houston course. But South Korean A Lim Kim birdied the final three holes to win.

“Her finish was kind of bittersweet,” Murphy said. “If you go back to early in the back nine that day, the eventual winner of the tournament and Kaitlyn through 10 holes of the final round were tied.”

Papp birdied her final hole as well. That she has now played in two U.S. Opens should hold her in good stead this week when she competes with the likes of Ko and Michelle Wie West.

“I feel like if anything, I kind of know like what to expect,” Papp said. “I know like where the USGA likes to put the holes on the green. I know it’s going to be a test really the whole week. You really have to stay patient with yourself out there and stay mentally tough through the whole week.”

Papp does bring a consistent game that’s entirely capable of winning on the LPGA Tour.

She’s extremely competitive and very methodical in her approach to tournaments. In 109 collegiate rounds, she had 62 rounds of par or better. She played a couple of practice rounds with Kristen Gillman and picked the brain of her former Lake Travis teammate and two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who made 22 of 26 cuts as a rookie on the LPGA Tour after leaving Alabama.

“I feel like she gives me little bits of advice here and there,” Papp said. “Her and I’s friendship has helped me when I play in these tournaments for sure.”

Since her freshman year, Papp has gained almost 40 yards off the tee box and improved her club speed from 88 mph to 103 mph. The LPGA average is between 94 and 95 mph.

She’s also improved her short game dramatically under the direction of short game master Chuck Cook and years of training under Anne Marie Gildersleeve at the Harvey Penick Teaching Academy at the Austin Country Club.

“She’s very analytical,” Murphy said. “I would say her accuracy and now driving are absolutely a strength. She can drive it straight, and she’s a very good putter who’s continually improved. She’s rock-solid in that area.

“But her mind, that’s the strongest part of her game because she’s very present through a round of golf. Every shot gets its due attention. And good or bad, if she makes a bogey, she puts it behind her before the next shot.”

And now she couldn’t be more excited about everything in front of her.