Cebu’s golf ace Irina Gabasa joins Vanderbilt U

(Photo by Manny Marcelo)

Back in 1873, one of America’s richest men, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping magnate, decided to build a school. He named it Vanderbilt University. Today, it ranks as one of the best in the United States.

Irina Gabasa is going to Vanderbilt. On full scholarship. Thanks to golf.

Only 16 years old, Irina won the Philippine Amateur Golf Championship last year. Because of that heavyweight victory, the petite junior golfer who trains at the Alta Vista Golf & Country Club impressed a field of international coaches.
She received emails. Phone calls were logged. The A-list of American coaches wanted to know: Who is this golf phenomenon and where is she from, Cebu City, Phils?

At 11 P.M. tonight, Ms. Gabasa, together with her parents, Deo and Rowena, head for the Mactan airport, ready to fly to the land of Barack Obama.

“I’m excited and nervous,” said Irina, dark-tanned from all the sun exposure yet whose smile and pretty face forever radiate. “College will definitely be a new experience.”

She finished pre-school, elementary and high school at Bright Academy. I’m proud to say that my mom, Allen, founded and continues to run the school and that our family owns it.

Before choosing Vanderbilt, Irina was toured all over the mainland and courted by many of the top schools. Among those who offered scholarships were Univ. of Miami, Pepperdine Univ., Univ. of Georgia, Texas Christian University, Baylor Univ., Coastal Carolina, and Southern Methodist Univ.

But, after months of studying, visiting and, above all, praying, Team Gabasa picked the Nashville, Tennessee campus whose student population is 12,714.

“I chose Vanderbilt University because of its balance in Sports and Education,” said Irina, via email, two nights ago. “Not only is it a top 20 NCAA Division 1 golf team but it’s also part of the 20 best Universities in the U.S. Others call Vanderbilt the Ivy League of the South. Also, because of the coaches. They are great and can help me grow into a better golfer and person.”

As good timing for Irina’s choice, Vanderbilt will be hosting the National Championships this year in their home club.

Upon arrival this Wednesday at Vanderbilt, Irina will be welcomed like a sports star. She receives a full scholarship that includes free board and lodging, tuition, books, equipment. “Even our golf shoes are customized,” said Irina. “Via the website, they asked me to pick the designs and colors that I wanted.”

The Vanderbilt Women’s Golf team is composed of seven players. Five are returnees and only two are freshmen; Irina is the only one from Asia.

When did Irina begin to play this game of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa? “I started at the age of seven,” she said. “My dad introduced me to the sport. I started playing competitively at the age of nine. I’ve never really had a constant coach aside from my dad. Whenever I have a coach, my dad is always there to implement whatever I learned.”

You can say “Like Father, Like Daughter.”

Irina with her parents, Deo and Rowena, and Mike Limpag, sports editor of SunStar Cebu

This 2011, she is ranked the # 17 junior in the whole of the United States. Wow!

Just two months ago, in a tour of the U.S. that was billed for Irina as a “college audition,” she joined the 30th Bubba Conlee National Junior Tournament, one of the most prestigious in the Mid-South.

Calmly, Irina birdied three of the final nine holes to finish with a 3-under 69. Her 54-hole total: 4-under 212. Irina won by two shots.

“It was a great achievement,” she said. “Through that victory, I was given the opportunity to play in AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) Invitational tournaments. This included the Rolex Tournament of Champions, Ping Invitational and The Thunderbird International Junior Championship.”

A Sportswriters Association of Cebu (SAC)-SMC Cebu Sports Awards major awardee from 2008 to 2011, Irina Gabasa is leaving Cebu tonight to conquer America tomorrow.

In a sport where six of the world’s Top 10 women golfers are Asian, who knows… the words “Filipina” and “from Cebu” might reach the leader-board.

Good luck, Irina!

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