By Beth Whitehead | Photographs by Keith Franklin
An Ocala high schooler’s passion for polo propels her to new heights in the game.
It’s not every sport in which you get to play with the pros. In polo, amateurs can play alongside professionals, and some of 17-year-old Ava Rose Hinkson’s mentors are the big names in the game. The late Sunny Hale, the first woman to compete in and win the U.S. Open Polo Championship, was one of them.
A shining white stadium and a green expanse the size of nine football fields greeted Hinkson as she drove through the subdivision of two-acre homes with their pretty barns and into the entrance of the Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington, Florida. It was the 2021 Sunny Hale Memorial Tournament, and Hinkson was there for two things: to play polo and honor her friend. Hinkson is an Ocala native and avid polo player. Usually, she plays at The Villages Polo Club, but she also travels back and forth from The Villages to Wellington to play at Grand Champions during the winter. Hinkson has played at various clubs and tournaments in Palm City, Sarasota, Vero Beach, University of Virginia, Jamaica and Zambia.
Growing up riding horses since she could walk, Hinkson first tasted polo at age 12 when her father, Greg Hinkson, set her on a polo pony and brought her out to watch a game he was refereeing.
“It sparked something,” she recalls. “I just fell in love with the sport.”
Around six months afterwards, Hale invited Hinkson down to Wellington to learn the sport. Studying under Hale’s wing is the reason she has such a great love of polo.
Palm City Polo Club owner Joey Casey helped Hinkson master her swing while Hale and Hinkson’s father coached her on game strategy.
“It was my dad and Sunny who taught me when they’re bringing the ball in this is where you need to be,” she says. “That’s really what built my foundation to how I play.”
Four years later, in February 2021, Hinkson joined competitors from around the world to honor Hale’s memory at Grand Champions. Hale founded the Women’s Championship Tournament, helped revive the U.S. Women’s Open and was considered one of the best female polo players in the world before her untimely passing due to cancer in 2017.
“It was very emotional,” Hinkson says, “especially because I knew Sunny personally and a lot of people there didn’t. Not everyone knows her but the people that do know her,” she pauses, then continues, “I mean, she was an incredible person.”
The event was televised and hosted players from all over the United States and the world, including from Argentina and England. To Hinkson, who captained a juniors’ team of girls, the opportunity to meet players from all levels and from all places is one of the things she loves about the sport.
“In polo, there’s a lot of camaraderie,” she explains. “You can really connect with people who play. It’s great to connect with someone [who lives] three miles from you or halfway across the world.”
One of the people from halfway across the world whom Hinkson connected with was Nina Clarkin, an English polo professional with a rating of 10 goals (polo’s highest level) and ranked by World Polo Tour as the fourth highest female polo player in the world. Clarkin was the sidelines coach for Hinkson’s team. It was in Zambia in the summer of 2019, upon the invitation of the Zambian Polo Association to bring over a team of junior players, that Hinkson experienced some of the best polo of her life.
“I mean, it’s Africa, right?” she offers. “The horses were awesome and the other players were incredible.”
At first, Hinkson thought the Zambians would give the American team she captained a slightly competitive, relaxed game, but she found otherwise.
“They were running and gunning. It was so fast and so clean,” she says. “In the states, sometimes, unfortunately, you play some of the higher-level polo and it can get a little dirty and rough, but this was just good, clean, fast polo.”
It was in Zambia that she and her team made the play she still talks about. It was a tie game and, when a teammate missed a crucial shot, Hinkson swept in and swept the ball 80 yards down the field. Her teammate was then able to make a 100-yard shot.
“It went perfectly between the uprights and in the goal,” she recalls. “It was a perfect field goal and we worked really hard for it.”
The shot won them the game.
The pinnacle of Hinkson’s polo career, however, was not Zambia; it was the 16-goal game held on March 28th at The Villages Polo Club, where she joined Paige Boone on the field. A little more than two weeks prior to this game, Boone had won the U.S. Open Women’s Championship on March 10th.
“It was definitely the highest level of women’s polo that I had played,” Hinkson explains. “I’ve played with Paige a lot and she is an incredible coach on the field and an incredible role model.”
Even off the field, Boone offers helpful critique and advice to her young friend.
“Once you’ve played at that level with those people, you just learn so much,” Hinkson enthuses. “It was just after she’d won the women’s open, so it was great to have her coaching and it was so fast and I really just had a good time.”
While Hinkson loves playing in the Ocala area, she is excited about the possibilities in front of her. She currently attends virtual high school and is dual enrolled at the College of Central Florida. She plans to take a gap year after high school and travel, perhaps to England, Russia and maybe Colombia. She’s also dreaming about new places to take a polo team. There is no doubt that grand adventures await this talented young woman.