Athena Dehen, who recently turned 9 years old, picks up a child-sized golf club and swings it around the living room of the family’s Tigard home while her mom, Claudia Ciobanu, gently reminds her to be careful.
“At least nothing has been broken yet,” she laughed.
But swinging a golf club is more than child’s play for Athena – it’s serious business. In early August, Athena competed in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C., against the world’s best 85 players in the 8-year-old division, and she tied for 10th in the world with an overall score of 3 over par. This earned her an automatic invitation to next year’s world championships and an opportunity to achieve her goal of a top five finish. There were more than 1,500 golfers from 40 countries at the event.
“This is a pretty ambitious plan for a young lady who played her first tournament less than two years ago,” said Ciobanu, who is raising Athena and 4-year-old Griffin with her husband Brian Dehen.
Athena has to juggle her time competing in tournaments with golf lessons, practicing several times a week and attending a local Montessori school where she is in the third grade.
In mid-August, Athena won the sub-regional event for the Drive Chip Putt skills challenge at the Home Course in Washington, which is a public golf course owned and operated by the Washington State Golf Association and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association. This was the second stage of the competition, which held five local qualifying events earlier this year with the top three players from each event competing at the Home Course, according to Ciobanu.
In September Athena headed to Pebble Beach for the Drive Chip Putt regional qualifier before the national finals in April 2023. Her goal was to come in No. 1 and be invited to play next year in the Augusta Nationals, one of the pre-Masters events
“She finished the challenge as the second overall player,” Ciobanu said. “She is sad to have narrowly missed the top spot and the invite to Augusta National, but she takes great pride in winning the driving and putting challenges.
“After all, (coming in) second out of hundreds of hundreds of young girls from Alaska, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington isn’t bad at all. She still dreams of making it to Augusta… ”
How did such a young girl become a golf phenom, which involves controlling your emotions as much as your swing? Two key factors were her mom and the Covid pandemic.
Ciobanu, who was born and raised in Romania, is now a golfer, but in college she was a competitive tennis player who thought golf was only a sport for retired people “until I tried to hit that little ball,” she said.
“I played 18 holes and was exhausted. It was more of a workout than I expected. I bought myself clubs for my graduation from the University of Oregon, played every weekend and got better. I was playing golf when I was pregnant with Athena, and my water broke when I was playing in Bend.”
She regrets to this day not finishing the round before she and her husband drove back to Tigard, where she safely delivered Athena. When Athena was 5 or 6 months old, Ciobanu took her along to the driving range at Langdon Farms Golf Club, “and she sat in her stroller mesmerized the entire time,” Ciobanu said. “She loved watching, and she started playing at age 5.”
Athena was a natural and has played more and more over the past several years. Now she plays three or four times a week during the school year and five or six times per week during the summer. And she also has two or three lessons a month.
“She got serious during the Covid pandemic when there was not much else to do,” Ciobanu said. “In June 2020 she did a junior camp at Langdon Farms at the age of 6, and the other kids were older. At the end of the summer, a boy told her she was really good and that he was entering a tournament and she should too. Her score in that first tournament was 58 for nine holes. She tied for second.”
Ciobanu explained that for US Kids tournaments, the tee boxes are adjusted for each age group. “The kids don’t play from the tee boxes the adults do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” she said. “She will have par threes that are 100 yards and par fives that are 300 yards.”
As Athena has grown older, there is more competition in each age group, and “the lower your score, the more priority points you get, which leads to invitations to regional tournaments,” Ciobanu said. “In a year, Athena’s score went from 58 to 39 although her (tee) distances have grown. Her lowest score is a 35.”
As Athena and her mom chatted, Athena remembered her exact scores from different tournaments and the circumstances she encountered along the way, recalling several in particular.
And playing golf while still growing has its challenges. As Athena has gotten older, she has needed new clubs. “She is on her fourth set,” Ciobanu said. “We just got her higher-performance clubs that are heavier and stiffer. They are good for the performance but not for the budget.”
But Ciobanu added that they have found most of Athena’s club sets on eBay for a fraction of the original price, and the family also economizes in other ways such as Ciobanu caddying for Athena most of the time.
But the World Championship in North Carolina was a whole different ball game.
“It was hot and humid over three days,” Ciobanu said. “We are used to playing in one-day tournaments, so it was definitely an adjustment. The better you are, the later your tee time. There was a lot of waiting and a lot of pressure. She was calmer than me.
“I knew her goal was to finish in the top 20, and with so many good players in the draw, I didn’t know if that was realistic, especially when so many other kids had their coaches or local professionals caddying for them.”
With so many competitions under her belt, what has been Athena’s favorite moment so far?
“The first time I hit under 40,” she said. “I was desperate to get a 39, and I had to make a 63-foot birdie to do it. It was a little lucky, I know, but it felt great. And my second-favorite moment was the first time I was under par. It was in Las Vegas last spring, and I was 2 under par. My best score was on my 9th birthday when I hit a 43 from the women’s tee box.
“I also like being outdoors, and I have made new friends. But they aren’t too happy when I beat them.”
And Athena is not above taking bribes from her mom, such as chocolate or $5 for every birdie, $10 for an eagle and $2 to save par. “One time I made $35,” she said.
And the family is thinking beyond the United States. The U.S. Kids Golf program holds tournaments around the world, and with the points Athena is accumulating, she is getting invitations to play outside the U.S. The family is eyeing the Venice Open in Italy next year and maybe combining a family vacation with a golf tournament every year.
“You must be grateful for everyone who is better than you because they force you to be better,” Ciobanu said to Athena. “We get better every tournament. We are working on our mental technique. If you get upset, you play bad. If you learn to control your emotions, you will play at your best.”
Athena, who admitted she cries when she loses, said that “winning is the best” and she plans to keep doing it.