Jewish studies suit S.F. golfer to a tee

With a controlled drive and athletic prowess that put her on the junior women's golf championship circuit, San Franciscan Jill Axelrod won a golf scholarship to UCLA.

Axelrod is the second Jewish woman currently on the UCLA golf team, joining second-year student Annie Markowitz of Santa Monica.

Jackie Steinmann, UCLA's head women's golf coach, said Axelrod's "attitude and determination is what impressed me the most. She is willing to do whatever it takes to be a good player. Of course, she's very smart, which is an added advantage."

Axelrod's desire to go pro was the final determining factor in her decision to attend UCLA, where she plans to major in history. She knows that there is fierce competition in the pro ranks, but she wants to give the tour a shot.

"Being able to travel and do what you love would be the greatest job," says the 17-year-old, who just returned from the U.S. Golf Association's Junior Girl's championship in Springfield, Mass. Her golf travels have also taken her to tournaments in Cape Cod, Mass., and Hawaii, where she was one of four young California women in last year's America's Cup tournament.

She chose UCLA not only because it has a golf program ranked fifth in the nation, but because she found the university warm and welcoming. Axelrod was also impressed by the strength of its Jewish community.

A June graduate of San Francisco's University High School, where she concluded her senior year with a 3.8 grade point average, Axelrod is particularly interested in Jewish studies. While in high school, she did independent studies on American indifference to the Holocaust and on British immigration policies at the time of World War II.

Calling herself a "team of one," she managed to win this year's North Coast sectionals championship for her school — despite the fact that University High does not have a golf team.

When the calls started rolling in from Princeton, Yale and UCLA, Axelrod knew that her college acceptance process would not be typical. Suddenly she found herself in meetings with athletic directors across the country, discussing how to keep up with academic pursuits while fulfilling the demands of a rigorous athletic program.

Her success in both areas is testimony to her discipline. But there are sacrifices, particularly in the social arena. "I've had to miss the junior prom and some of my graduation parties," says Axelrod.

"There are two games of golf" she says. "There are the Saturday rounds of men in plaid pants. Then there are the serious competitive types."

Considering herself one of the latter, Axelrod objects to the way in which golf's athleticism and difficulty is downplayed.

"Walking 18 holes is a tough mental as well as physical game" she says. "Recently, in a tournament in Palm Springs, it was 115 degrees. Endurance is really important. You have to be a person who can be alone and who is very disciplined."

Unlike other sports, golf has two seasons, which makes it particularly demanding for a college athlete. Come September, Axelrod will be spending 20 to 25 hours a week traveling and working out. Willing to make sacrifices, she knows that she must become more focused to "go all the way," she says.

In addition, she says, golf is a solitary game. "In any other team sport, you rely on others. In golf, you just have yourself and the game."

While most of her competitors were pushed into the sport at a very young age by their parents, Axelrod discovered the sport on her own. She firmly believes that this love of the game is what has brought her this far. Training from three to four hours a day, she thrives on the time alone.

She vividly remembers being a 10-year-old avid miniature- golf player, informing her parents that she wanted to play "big golf." Soon after, she began lessons.

By the end of her sophomore year, training had become more intense. Although she knew that dedicating that summer to tournaments would put her in the competitive arena, she decided to take a trip to Israel instead; it was more important to her.

"Because of the Israel trip I lost a whole year of competition," she says. "I don't regret it at all."

In the future, Axelrod knows that she will have to forfeit other opportunities. Because of her golf scholarship, she will not be able to spend a year in Israel during college. This is a disappointment for Axelrod.

When considering the sacrifices, Axelrod focuses on the big picture. At the beginning of the summer, she played in the U.S. Open qualifying competition in Sacramento; of the 81 competitors, more than 30 were pros.

"I beat two pros," says Axelrod. "Playing with them showed me I have potential to be a great player."