LAFAYETTE -- It's a fairway fairy tale, how a 16-year-old East Bay girl qualified for the U.S. Women's Open only four years after picking up a golf club for the first time.
Lafayette's Elizabeth Schultz happened to be at home watching the Masters in 2009 when she asked family friend Dan Stanich a fateful question: Can you show me how to swing a golf club?
"I got her some cotton balls and a pitching wedge, and she stood out in the backyard for a couple hours hitting cotton balls," Stanich recalled.
One swing led to another, and another, and now Schultz is heading to the U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., from June 27 to 30.
"I'm really excited. I can hardly believe it," said Schultz, who just completed her junior year at Acalanes High School.
Hers is not the typical story of a golf phenom -- those who took their first swings by kindergarten.
Schultz was a year-round swimmer with the Walnut Creek Aquabears for 10 years, also playing for Diablo Water Polo. She had some catching up to do after mashing a few cotton balls at age 12.
"What got me here is, obviously, a lot of hard work," she said. "My coach gives me this analogy that it's like putting a penny in the bank every day in practice. It's not a lot of money, but gradually you will get better after time. ... The pros make it look so easy, I just remember going out, and I would hit all of my shots, like, fat. I just couldn't hit the ball when I first started, and I just kept at it."
Schultz won her Open spot at a sectional qualifier in May at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, claiming the third and final qualifying spot with a 36-hole score of 147. That field was composed primarily of collegiate and professional players. She finished behind Casie Cathrea, 17, of Livermore (140), and former Cal player Emily Childs, of Alameda (144).
One of 17 amateurs and 14 teenagers to qualify for the Open, Schultz described her accomplishment as "cool and special."
Former LPGA Tour player Jean Zedlitz, a Livermore resident who played in the Open five times, had another word for it: "Amazing."
"To go in four years from just picking up a club to playing in the Open ...," Zedlitz mused before turning to the matter at hand. "She's going to have a lot of pressure in the Open. It's a special tournament. I still got butterflies every time played in it when I was on tour."
Schultz, who stands 5 feet 11 and rips drives about 270 yards on average, practiced six days a week -- about 30 hours total -- during the school year at Boundary Oak Golf Course in Walnut Creek. She also spent an extra hour each weekday in the gym.
"A lot of the girls, they start off at a country club," said Stanich, the family friend who helped Schultz get started in golf. "Mom plays. Dad plays. They come from kind of a pedigree background, and she's just a muni player who happens to physically be very talented. Now her mental game is coming around where I feel that she can play with anybody."
The U.S. Open field includes Pleasanton's Paula Creamer, the 2010 champion, and Los Altos resident Juli Inkster, a two-time champion and one of the few players to experience such a rapid rise to prominence.
"I didn't start playing until I was 15 and qualified for the Open when I was 18," Inkster said. "So everybody kind of starts and improves at their own pace, and I think that's the beauty of golf. ... It's the skill level and what you put into it, and the opportunities you get to play."
Stanich attributes Schultz's ascension to "extreme dedication" and a lot of "blood, sweat and tears -- and mostly tears."
"We're still kind of pinching ourselves here," he said.
Sam Bozzo, Boundary Oak's head pro, said nearly everyone who works at the course knows Schultz and is thrilled about her qualifying for the Open. He compares her physical makeup and power off the tee to that of Michelle Wie, who started playing at age 4.
"It's easy to see that she's head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition at her age group right now," Bozzo said. "With her size, and she's got a lot of strength in her background as a swimmer, she's got the long arms. She's built to hit the ball far."
Schultz's long-term goal is to play on the LPGA Tour. Short-term, she wants to make the cut at the Open. Her game plan: "Just go out there and have a good time and pretty much do my best and have no expectations."
Stanich, of Pleasant Hill, understands why people shake their heads in amazement at Schultz.
"Everybody is kind of like, 'Wow, she's only played for four years.' But she loves to practice," he said. "You've got to pull her off the golf course at night."