After a stellar 2020, teenage golf star's rise continues

WEST POINT, Miss. (AP) — Rob Akins started coaching Emerson Blair when she was “a little teeny girl” weighing barely 60 pounds.

But Akins, a PGA professional and golf instructor from Collierville, Tennessee, could tell one thing right away: The 10-year-old from West Point showed a talent and dedication that far exceeded her size.

“As a young girl, she had that drive,” Akins said, “way more drive than most of the time what you see in boys or girls that age.”

Blair, now 14, has used that drive to become Mississippi’s No. 1 girls golfer. And after a standout 2020, she has her sights set even higher.

“I have a good feeling that in the next year or two, you’ll see her rise to the top of all the girls in the U.S.,” Akins said.

Blair furthered that process over the past year with five tournament wins across the Southeast.

She captured first-place trophies at the College Tour X Pride of the South at her home course, Old Waverly Golf Club; the Mississippi Junior Amateur Championship in Meridian; the Mississippi Women’s Four-Ball in Hattiesburg; the Emerald Coast Indian Bayou Junior Classic in Destin, Florida; and the Elite Invitational in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

It’s nothing new for Blair, who has been all over the country thanks to golf over the past few years. She’s competed in North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey and even played in the American Junior Golf Association Thunderbird Junior All-Star tournament this June in Phoenix, Arizona, where she got to take a side trip to the Grand Canyon.

“There are a lot of really great places that you go with golf,” Blair said.

She even earned a chance to play at Augusta National Golf Club, the annual home of the Masters Tournament, in the 2016 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship when she was 9 years old.

In the skills championship, an event that featured players from 7 to 15 years old from across the country, Blair won her age group of 7-to-9-year-old girls when she competed in 2016. Although the victory earned her and her family a trip to Sammamish, Washington, to watch that summer’s Women’s PGA Championship, being able to set foot on the nation’s most famous golf course was a prize in and of itself.

“Considering it’s such an exclusive place where not many people get to even go watch, to be able to hit on their driving range and putt on the green -- 18 -- that was really fun,” Blair said.

Coincidentally, the hole she played in Augusta was the same hole number her family lives next to at Old Waverly. With her house just off the 18th fairway at the West Point course, Blair has a chance to practice or play at the facility every day -- weather permitting -- in order to improve.

“Her hard work and dedication have paid off to allow her to do some amazing things so far,” Akins said.

And national organizations have begun to notice. Junior Golf Scoreboard ranks Blair -- a freshman who is homeschooled through an online program called Enlightium Academy -- the No. 236 girls golfer in the country and the No. 28 player in the Class of 2024. The AJGA slots her in at No. 226 and No. 20, respectively.

Blair said she wants to pursue a college and pro career in the sport but isn’t thinking about any schools yet. Per a recent NCAA regulation, colleges can’t contact recruits until the end of their sophomore year, and Blair has no idea where she’d like to go, anyway.

But soon enough, she’ll join golfers like LSU signee Cohen Trolio and Vanderbilt commit Wells Williams as the latest star golfer to come out of West Point. Blair said she’s proud of that, “especially in such a small town where having such good players coming out of there and going to great colleges is really cool.”

Akins said he’s proud to see how much Blair has improved since her father, Key Blair, called him up four years ago and told the coach about his daughter. Since then, Akins has worked with Blair on her setup and her swing, helping her slowly erode the bad habits she had and develop new ones.

“Nobody’s born with a natural golf swing,” Akins said.

Still, Blair’s swing has gotten a lot better. She could already drive the ball 150 to 160 yards on average as a 9-year-old and now routinely reaches 240 to 250 yards, she said.

And in the past five years, she’s gone from the tiny player who looked up to the older kids around her -- although she still does -- to a budding star whom today’s younger golfers admire.

“There are definitely players who look up to me now, so it’s definitely changed a little bit,” Blair said.

For Akins, none of that is a surprise as he watches Blair’s young career continue to grow.

“She’s come a long ways,” he said.