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Thursday, August 4, 2016

A world of talent on display at Rolling Green

   SPRINGFIELD -- With the sun starting to set on the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club Thursday, a putt by France’s Mathilda Cappeliez rolled into the hole to give her a 1-up victory over Paphangkorn Tavatanakit of Thailand.
   The quarterfinals at the 6,259-yard, par-71 William Flynn gem were set and seven countries and one United States territory will be represented when the first of the four matches tees off at 1:45 p.m. Friday.
   A lot of people see that as a weakness in women’s professional golf, where all eight of Thursday afternoon’s winners are likely headed. The critics complain that there aren’t enough American stars in the game, but it’s a great big world out there and it’s ultimately a strength for the game of golf, the women’s game in particular, that so many countries have high-caliber players.
   Just as an aside, Juli Inkster’s U.S. team won a Solheim Cup in pretty dramatic fashion last year and the U.S. won the UK International Crown a couple of weeks ago, so you can back off with the U.S. women can’t play stuff anyway.
   The lone American survivor Thursday was Andrea Lee, a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team who is headed for Stanford. Lee of Hermosa Beach, Calif. rolled over lifelong friend Robynn Ree, the Redondo Beach, Calif. resident who will be a sophomore at Southern California this year, 6 and 4.
   Lee is playing really well and would normally be considered a favorite to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, except her opponent in the quarterfinals is Eun Jeong Seong, the South Korean who defeated Lee in the U.S. Girls’ Junior final, 4 and 2, two weeks ago at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J. The good news for Lee, though, is that was a 36-hole final and Lee actually held a 5-up lead after the first 13 holes of the match.
   The 16-year-old Seong became the first repeat winner of the U.S. Girls’ Junior since Hollis Stacy won her third straight title in 1971. She appears very much on track to became the first player ever to win the Girls’ Junior and the Women’s Amateur in the same year.
   Thursday she dusted fellow South Korean Hye-Jin Choi, 6 and 5. Choi is more highly ranked in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking than Seong. Choi was the low amateur at the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle and co-medalist in Girls’ Junior qualifying.
   Choi did actually win the first hole with a birdie. But starting with the third hole, Seong won five of the next six holes, four with birdies and the one she didn’t win, the par-5 seventh, was halved with birdies.
   “If I don’t know the player style or her ranking, I can play my (game),” Seong said after dismantling her countrywoman. “But I know her. I really know her. I know she’s a good player and that’s why I can’t trust me.”
   Lee, too, is playing very well. She jumped out to a quick 3-up lead on Ree before Ree won two holes to cut the deficit to just 1-down. But Lee won four straight holes, the sixth with birdie, the seventh with par and the eighth and ninth with birdies to take a commanding 5-up advantage.
   It is the anchor match of the four quarterfinals, Seong vs. Lee, at 2:15 p.m. It’s going to be a good one.
   The 18-year-old Cappeliez, who is headed for Wake Forest later this month, will take on Hannah Green, a 19-year-old Australian who plans to turn pro later this year.
   All Green did Thursday was knock off 13-year-old phenom Lucy Li, 6 and 4, and then claim a 4 and 3 victory over another Frenchwoman in the final 16, Duke junior Celine Boutier. Boutier was 3-down heading into the sixth hole, went birdie-birdie, and lost ground as Green matched Boutier’s birdie at the sixth and won the par-5 seventh with an eagle.
   The first match of the quarterfinals will feature Italy’s Virginia Elena Carta, who won the NCAA individual title as a freshman at Duke this spring, against Puerto Rico’s Maria Torres, a senior at Florida. Carta knocked off Ohio State senior Jessica Porvasnik, 3 and 2, while Torres took out Dylan Kim of Plano, Texas, 2 and 1.
   They’ll be followed by Yuka Saso, all of 15, from the Philippines, against Japan’s Nasa Hataoka. Saso claimed a 2 and 1 win over Hailee Cooper of Montgomery, Texas while Hataoka edged South Carolina senior Katelyn Dambaugh, 2 and 1.
   The Hataoka-Dambaugh match, which I followed from start to finish, offered up the whole U.S. vs. the world thing in a nutshell.
   First of all, Dambaugh is a terrific player. A co-runnerup for the Annika Award that goes to the top player in Division I golf, the left-hander from Goose Creek, S.C. was at her best during the collegiate postseason and she wasn’t bad at Rolling Green. She set up the showdown with Hataoka by taking out 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kristen Gillman of Austin, Texas, 2 and 1.
   The word outside the ropes Thursday was that the 17-year-old Hataoka plans to turn pro soon. She and Dambaugh put on a show in their match.
   Dambaugh got behind when Hataoka stiffed her approach at the par-4 second and made the putt for a birdie. Hataoka increased her lead to 2-up when she dropped a 23-foot birdie putt.
   But Dambaugh answered by drilling her tee shot at the par-3 sixth to six feet and made the putt to cut Hataoka’s lead to 1-up.
   And that’s the way it stayed for seven holes of what can only be described as routine excellence by both players. When it looked like Dambaugh might have the edge on the par-4 13th hole when Hataoka missed the green short, Hataoka, after a so-so chip, dropped an 18-foot par putt.
   Hataoka got her two-hole advantage back with a tenacious two-putt on the very tough par-3 14th, but Dambaugh answered with a birdie at the 15th to get back to 1-down. Hataoka, however, stuck her tee shot at the par-3 16th to six feet and made the putt and she was dormie at 2-up with two to play.
   They put on one more display of amazing golf at the par-5 17th. Dambaugh, needing to win the hole, reached it in two, 45 feet away. Hataoka laid up just short and then hit a masterful chip that skipped once, twice and stopped three feet from the pin. Dambaugh hit a tremendous putt, the ball taking a peek at the hole while curling around it before staying out and it was over.
   Let’s put it this way, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll take Dambaugh on my U.S. Solheim Cup team any time.
   There was no disgrace among any of the five American losers in the round of 16. All Cooper, who lost to Saso, did in her first two matches was take out two U.S. Curtis Cup members, Georgia sophomore Bailey Tardy and Mika Liu, who starts up at Stanford later this month.
   Cooper teamed with Kaitlyn Papp to capture the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Streamsong earlier this year. Cooper will be somebody’s prized recruit when she decides where she’s going to college.
   The bottom line is that the future of women’s golf is bright, both in the United States and the rest of the world.

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