It is, for many of them, the biggest tournament they have played during their short golf careers. But if history is any indication, it can be a springboard to a successful future in the sport.

The 51st U.S. Girls' Junior Championship begins today at Green Spring Valley Hunt Club in Owings Mills, Md. This is the second time Maryland has hosted the Girls' Junior. In 1959, it was held at Manor Country Club in Rockville.

Three local girls--Sarah O'Neill, a 14-year-old from Potomac; Christy Larrimore, a 14-year-old from Glen Burnie; and Jenny Suh, a 13-year-old from Fairfax--are among the 156 girls, age 17 and under, vying for the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy. All three are first-time qualifiers.

O'Neill, a sophomore at Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, has been playing for five years. In June, she won the Maryland State Golf Association's junior girls championship. She tees off at 12:40 p.m. on the 10th hole today.

"I'm very excited about it," O'Neill said. "The best girls in the country will be there. It will be such fun."

Larrimore, a sophomore at Archbishop Spalding, has played for just 2 1/2 years. She was runner-up to O'Neill for the MSGA junior girls title and is in her first year of playing competitive golf. She tees off at 2 at the 10th.

"I want to play good and have fun," Larrimore said. "It will be a learning experience, playing with people at that level."

Suh, who will be a freshman at Chantilly, won the Bobby Bowers Memorial girls title two weeks ago to become the youngest girls champion in the event's 25-year history. Suh, who defeated O'Neill in the semifinals of the match-play tournament, begins her round at 12:20 on hole No. 10.

After two days of stroke play competition, the field will be reduced to the lowest 64 scorers. Those players advance to match play. The 18-hole, match-play final is set for 9 a.m. Sunday.

It is far too early to tell which of these young golfers have the potential to become top players. But as the past indicates, success at the Girls' Junior can lead to greater success. Several former champions have gone on to professional careers, including Nancy Lopez, Michelle McGann and Kelli Kuehne.

This year's field includes the defending champion, Leigh Anne Hardin of Martinsville, Ind. Hardin won last year's title 2 up. She is making her fifth appearance at the tournament.