Arizona junior Gile Bite Starkute is the first Lithuanian to play college golf in the United States and has established himself as a Wildcats star. She hopes to be the first Olympic golfer in her country. (Photo courtesy of Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics)

PHOENIX – Tucson, Arizona and Vilnius, Lithuania are separated by almost 6,000 miles on a world map.

They are even further apart in the world of golf.

Although these are two cities of approximately 540,000 residents, there are over 40 golf courses in and around Tucson. Vilnius has more disc golf courses – five – than real golf courses – three – and the whole country has only seven.

Which is why Gile Bite Starkute, a junior at the University of Arizona, despite being ranked among the country’s top 100 players in women’s college golf by Golfweek, is a much more important part of the Lithuanian golf community than the vast landscape. Arizona golf course.

“The community is very inspired by her, everyone admires her and the little ones already see her as an example,” said Mindaugas Markevičius, General Secretary of the Lithuanian Golf Federation.

The golf community in Lithuania is quite small due to the country’s late introduction into the sport. The country does not yet have a golfer at the Olympics, and Markevičius said the first golf course in Lithuania, which was an uncertified nine-hole course, was built just 21 years ago. The first 18-hole course was not built until 2005.

In contrast, the first golf courses built in the United States appeared in the early 1890s and in Arizona around 1900.

“She is probably just one of five Lithuanian women who play competitive golf,” said Laura Ianello, Arizona golf coach. “She is probably the first to play college golf in Lithuania.”

Starkute, who started learning sports as a leisure activity with her father when she was just 6 years old, discovered the sport just as it was emerging in his home country.

Markevičius said golf in Lithuania started with around 300 registered players, but has grown to over 2,500 today. Despite the growth of the game in Lithuania, Starkute was unaware of the opportunities that were possible in golf until she took her game away from the country.

“It wasn’t really a big deal, but when I started traveling overseas my eyes suddenly opened to what golf really is,” Starkute said. “All of a sudden you come to a tournament and you see 70 or 80 girls your age playing better than you. You realize that there is competition.

Gile Bite Stakute, who helped Arizona advance to the national semifinals last season, is a sports star in Lithuania, which has only a handful of golf courses. The UArizona junior aims to become her country’s first Olympic golfer. (Photo courtesy of Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics)

After experiencing higher levels of competition and recognizing her own potential, Starkute began to consider taking her career even further and trying to become the first Lithuanian to play college golf in the United States.

“When I was in high school I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to continue both (golf and education) after I graduated,” Starkute said. “After talking to a lot of people who have been to the United States and my family, we saw this as a great opportunity to kind of start my future.”

Gile began sending letters to college coaches in the United States expressing interest in playing for them. She received a response from several schools, but Arizona was not one of them.

But Arizona found her, thanks to good fortune.

Ianello discovered Starkute while visiting a tournament in Ireland, which was not unusual in his recruiting process. She has often visited international tournaments in search of golfers with the potential to play for her team.

“I ran into Gile’s group and saw what she had shot – a really good first round lap,” Ianello said. “So I went to watch her in the second round. I was very impressed with it; its maturity, its strength.

Starkute and her parents also saw the potential of the program in Arizona and after a conversation with Ianello, she arranged an official visit to the Tucson campus. The visit only reinforced Starkute’s desire to continue his golfing career in the wilderness.

“I just fell in love with Arizona after coming here,” she said. “A day later I was like, ‘I want to go here. “I think that’s how professionally I saw it, just the facilities and resources that were presented to me on my official visit.

Her passion for the game has only grown since joining the Wildcats.

“A lot of people see golf as, I don’t know, the stereotype that it’s boring. ‘It’s always the same thing.’ For me, I see golf as a constant change because there is never a game that goes the same way, ”said Starkute,“ There are always conditions, there are different courses, there are there are different people, there are different moods even for the player himself.

Ianello described Starkute as a huge contributor to UArizona’s success at the NCAA Division I golf championships last season, when the Wildcats reached the national semifinals before falling to future champion Mississippi.

Starkute finished ninth in the Pac-12 Preview tournament on the first weekend of November in Hawaii and will then face off when the Wildcats face off for the first event of their spring semester at the Superstition Challenge on Jan. 24-25 at Superstition Mountain. Golf Club at Gold Canyon.

“She has always been in our top five over the past year and a half,” said Ianello, “Gile is just a young lady who will strive to do everything perfectly.”

The Lithuanian Golf Federation has even more hope for Starkute, who they believe could be the country’s first Olympic golfer. She shares the same high hopes, but Starkute is also aiming for goals beyond the golf course.

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“My dream is also to try to represent my country at the Olympics, because we have never had a golfer for our country,” she said. “So it would be the absolute dream. But I’m currently majoring in finance, so pursuing a career in finance is also somewhere in the plan. So I want to find the balance.

Starkute has described herself as someone who doesn’t want to settle into complacency or be easily satisfied. She hopes to master all aspects of her life without sacrificing her potential in any of them.

“I never want to reach the a ultimate goal, ”Starkute said. “And I want to have small goals along the way. So I want to see it as a learning process that never ends.

Meanwhile, she is setting a standard for the Lithuanian Golf Federation and paving the way for future young golfers from her country.

“Golf should be one of the ways for players not only to get free high quality education,” said Markevičius. “We see the NCAA as a highway to professional golf. ”

Markevičius described Starkute as a pride and joy of Lithuanian golf – a star. The federation wants it to represent the country but also to accomplish as much as it can beyond sport, and it has a similar mindset.

Starkute sees his journey across the world to the United States as a start. Now that she is here, she intends to use the opportunities to their fullest.

“I want to stay here in the United States, try to do as much as possible, maybe even settle here,” she said. “And if things don’t work out completely, then the house is still there.

“Coming here to Tucson is like opening doors to all possibilities. I was very lucky to end up here.