At the young age of 14, sophomore golfer Jane Dong overcame the forces of nature.
The California native successfully golfed against boys, disregarding the physiological differences between men and women on the Irvington High School male team in Fremont, Calif. She continued to beat her physically stronger competitors until her junior year, and before she quit playing golf during her senior year to focus on college, she earned a spot on the All-American Junior Golf team, finished fifth at the National American Junior Golf Open, and accrued several Mission Valley Athletic League titles.
Dong did not find success immediately—golfing on the men’s team proved to be an emotional and physical challenge during her first season. Her extra flexibility promulgated wild swings, spinning her nearly 180 degrees after a stroke. Although her coach said he didn’t witness disrespect pointed toward Dong, she said her male teammates teased her, often calling her “whirlybird.”
“Because I was more flexible and my swing was kind of weird, they did make fun of me to the point where I did want to cry, but I just didn’t really,” Dong said. “I actually never really confronted them. I just kind of dealt with it.”
While Dong felt the social dynamic of a male-dominated team limited her emotional expression, she took the teasing in stride, as the boys did not discriminate based on gender. They poked fun of everyone, and the comments subsided as she improved toward the end of her first season.
“With guys, you can’t take anything personally,” Dong said. “When I was always the second or third-best score, you know, that’s when they started respecting me more.”
Dong was neither the first nor the only girl to play on the men’s high school team at her school. But Dong and another female teammate were the first to be approached by Mangan about whether they wanted to form a female team. “We didn’t have enough girls to form a girls’ team, so we decided that we’d rather play on a good boys’ team than attempt to form a mediocre slash really bad girls team,” Dong said.
Although Mangan offered to find a girls’ coach during Dong’s freshman year, he and many players on the team hoped the two girls would continue play for the men’s squad.
“I told the boys I was going to offer it up and a lot of them were disappointed because they’re good players. In other words, they helped their team excel,” Mangan said.
On a team of approximately 20 people, Dong remained a key player and fired high enough scores for match play. In match play, five golfers on each team compete for the top four spots that make up the squad’s overall score.
After she began posting scores in the top four, Dong said the players whose scores were thrown out in her place did not blame her—the boys knew they simply needed to catch up.
While she provided motivation for them, the boys also improved her skills. Dong focused on her short game because the team’s best male players were physically stronger, and therefore more capable of reaching the green. To compensate for this disadvantage, Dong usually practiced for an extra two to three hours with a few teammates.
“I think that playing on the boys’ team, first of all, helped me be more competitive. And it also changed the way I practice because a lot of times, when me and my best friend back then practiced, we’d chat and we’d just hang out. Guys, when they practice together, they always compete,” Dong said.
In their spare hours on the course, the boys would challenge her with inventive and difficult tasks, like firing from behind trees.
Columbia teammate Michelle Piyapattra cites Dong’s creative and accurate short game as her most admirable skill and said that it probably game from her time playing on a male team.
In a league where Irvington High had the only co-ed team, Dong’s ambition initially surprised rival schools.
“I think that the boys were astonished that a freshman girl could make a varsity golf team and become a match player,” Mangan said.
Dong was well known and respected within the league for her contributions to her team. While her scores factored into qualifications for important tournaments, Dong’s gender excluded her from the North Coast Sectionals, which only accepts male golfers.
And though she never experienced that competition, Dong now plays at that level for the Light Blue. Columbia coach Kari Williams finds that Dong transitioned smoothly to collegiate golf because she was already accustomed to playing on longer courses.
“Playing with the boys is much more competitive and Jane is a very competitive person,” Piyapattra said.