When the USGA announced that it was bringing the 2022 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship to Alaska, a USGA champion in Alabama was literally doing cartwheels.
The news that the country’s 49th state would host its first national championship completes the circle in that each state in the U.S. will have hosted at least one championship (Alaska joins six states – as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico – with exactly one apiece).
For Kathy Hartwiger, this championship is less about checking a box than about returning to her roots in the game.
As the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Hartwiger moved every two years of her childhood to a different state and military base. It was in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a teenager that she fell in love with a game that has since brought so much joy to her life.
She returns this week to the Final Frontier to compete in the history-making 60th U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at Anchorage Golf Course, and also to visit with her older brother, Shaun, who still lives in Fairbanks.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Hartwiger, the 2002 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur champion, who will be competing in her 24th USGA championship. “I am so excited they are having the Women’s Senior there.”
Hartwiger’s introduction to golf came at an early age. Her mom, Ginger Ahern, was an excellent player who captured three consecutive Alaska Women’s Amateur titles from 1983-85, and her father, Michael (Bill) Ahern, also enjoyed the game. For a time, however, the game didn’t move fast enough for Kathy’s liking.
Everything changed when her father was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. Her sports of choice were volleyball and tennis, but the local high school didn’t have a tennis team. Her volleyball coach, Steve Lackey, a scratch golfer who went on to qualify for the 1993 U.S. Senior Open, suggested she take up the game.
Not long after, a friend bet Hartwiger that she couldn’t break 60 on the army base’s nine-hole golf course. The competitive Hartwiger took him up on it and easily won the wager. Now smitten with the game, Hartwiger went to work on getting better. She even recorded the first of her six career holes-in-one there while playing with her mother.
Despite the state’s short three-month golf season and less-than-ideal conditions (one local course had sand greens), she could play and practice all day and night in the height of the summer. Whenever friends or relatives came to visit, midnight golf was always on the agenda.
Just one summer after she started and a month after high school graduation, Hartwiger was competing in the Alaska Women’s Amateur. After an early round defeat left her in tears, her father consoled her by saying, “Most people are too afraid to feel like you are feeling right now, so they don’t even enter these [events].”
Those words meant everything to the fledgling golfer. About a month later, she successfully walked on to the women’s golf team at the University of Iowa, transferring to the College of William & Mary after one year. Hartwiger went on to meet her future husband, Chris, a longtime USGA Green Section agronomist and the director of its Course Consulting Service, at the Williamsburg, Va., school.
Hartwiger went on to become one of the country’s top mid-amateurs, capturing the 2002 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur over seven-time USGA champion Ellen Port at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. She is one of two players (along with Lara Tennant, who did in 2021) to defeat Port in a USGA final. Hartwiger, a recently retired middle school guidance counselor, took an eight-year hiatus from USGA competitions to spend more time with her family, which includes daughter Erin and son Ben. Now that Erin has graduated from college and Ben is nearly done at Texas A&M, Hartwiger has increased her competitive schedule.
In 2019 she played in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at Cedar Rapids Country Club in her native state of Iowa. That event gave her an opportunity to see family and be with her ailing mother, who was in the Mayo Clinic 2½ hours away. Last year, she advanced to the quarterfinals at The Lakewood Club in her adopted home state of Alabama with husband Chris on the bag. He will caddie for her again this year.
Now Hartwiger, who helped Alabama win the 1997 USGA Women’s State Team title, gets a third consecutive “homecoming” in Alaska. She will stay in Anchorage with Sue Gatewood, a longtime friend of her late mother. She will also reunite with Jaime Berge, a volunteer Rules official from Alaska who often competed against her in Alaska in the mid-1980s.
“It’s surreal,” said Hartwiger about the trip. “Lots of great memories.”
As for playing golf in the 49th state, Hartwiger noted, “Bring the bug spray. And it’s going to be cold, especially for those of us from the South. It’s going to be adventure, and that’s the way I am looking at it.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.