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Girl golfer in Idaho fights to play with the boys

BUHL, Idaho — For a golf ball waiting to be clubbed, physics are everything. Swing outside-in and the dimpled sphere slices into the rough. Hit it too high and the ball is transformed into a turf-bound, worm-burning projectile.

But as Idaho high school golf champ Sierra Harr knows, that vexing white orb, subordinate as it is to the laws governing matter's travel through space and time, is indifferent to whether it's struck by a boy or a girl.

Just now, however, that's the issue pre-occupying the 16-year-old Harr, as Idaho's high school athletics governing body considers a small rule change with big consequences: It would prevent her from playing with the Castleford High Schools boy's golf team, the one she helped win the 2012 state championship in May.

As it happens, some opposing coaches complained, she said.

"When this started, I only wanted to play golf," Harr, a 16-year-old high school junior from Buhl, Idaho, told The Associated Press. "But I really started to believe that women should be given the same opportunity as men. I kind of became a feminist."

Two years ago, which was Harr's freshman season at Castleford, she easily won the individual girl's state title, for schools with fewer than 160 students.

Her closest rival, a Swedish exchange student, was six strokes adrift.

In 2012, however, only three girls turned out for Castleford's girls' squad, one too few to field a formal team.

Rather than play as an individual, Harr, the No. 3 female golfer in Idaho in her age group with a 2.2 handicap, won the Idaho High School Activities Association's permission to play with Castleford's boys' team provided she qualified every week.

When Harr's seventh-place overall finish in the boy's state tournament in May powered her squad to Idaho's 2A team title, some rival coaches raised concerns allowing her to tee off with the boys went too far, especially since Harr was free to participate in girls' tournaments as an individual.

Activities association officials say they're trying to craft athletic rules nimble enough to accommodate a rare talent like Harr with the misfortune of attending a school where few females golf, while still preserving fairness for others.

Nothing's been decided, either, adds association president Greg Bailey.

Discussion might go beyond a Sept. 25 meeting, the next time the group gets together.

"There aren't any villains here," Bailey said. "We try to look at things from a fairness perspective, fairness for that individual athlete as well as fairness for the other athletes involved. The question is, is she bumping out a boy? And if she wins in the competition, did she bump out a boy in the other school district?"

Experts, however, say the question isn't whether someone gets bumped, since that's part of all sports.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former U.S. Olympic gold medalist swimmer, lawyer and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, said any governing association must be careful not to deny female student-athletes like Harr an opportunity for the same educational experience that boys get, a protection afforded by landmark 40-year-old federal Title IX provisions meant to end discrimination.

Title IX goes beyond mere participation, Hogshead-Makar told the AP, as it seeks to ensure that girls are afforded equal access and equal opportunities — including to the educational experience that accompanies team play.

"That's a different educational experience than her being able to participate as an individual," she said.

If enough girls turn out for Castleford's team next spring, Harr would play with them; if they don't, some coaches don't oppose her playing with and against the boys.

"She's with the boys — she better play with the boys for the next couple years," said Dennie Smyer, golf coach at Declo High School, which plays in Castleford's league. "Her full potential at the 2A level is for her to play with the boys."

Harr putted her first golf ball as a 3-year-old at her home course, the public Clear Lakes Country Club in the Snake River Canyon near Buhl.

To get there, drivers must pass potato, sugar beet and corn fields, a cattle feed lot and an enormous rainbow trout farm; typical for Idaho, the parking lot is three-quarters full of pickups. While hitting a few balls there last week, Harr said she fears the proposed rule change could deprive her of the camaraderie and competition necessary for her to achieve her dream: a college athletic scholarship.

Playing with a team is just different than playing alone, she said, adding her experience with the Castleford boys team helped prepare her for July's Girls Junior America's Cup in Hawaii, where she finished 34th.

"The mental mind set a golfer gains from golfing for a team cannot be replaced," she wrote to the association, pleading her case. "The boys on my team treated me as an equal, and if any of my competitors disapproved of my golfing with the boys, they were gracious enough to keep their opinions to themselves and treated me with respect. The only negative reactions I received were from a few opposing coaches."