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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rolling Green and the Women's Amateur players put on quite a show



   It’s been a week since Eun Jeong Seong rolled in a dramatic 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at Rolling Green Golf Club to complete an historic USGA double with a 1-up victory over Virginia Elena Carta in the final of the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
   By almost any measure, you would have to rate Rolling Green’s return to the national stage for the first time since the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open an unqualified success.
   It was a different time in women’s golf 40 years ago when the best players in the game struggled at the 6,297-yard, par-71 (or occasionally par-70 and a little shorter when the 18th hole was played as a long par-4 rather than a shortish par-5) William Flynn design.
   JoAnne Carner, the best player in the game at the time, won in an 18-hole playoff after she and Sandra Palmer had finished in a tie at 8-over 292 after 72 holes. The par was still 71 and it was played at 6,066 yards, but Rolling Green’s elevation changes and slick greens took their toll on that Women’s Open field.
   I was all over Rolling Green every day of this year’s U.S. Amateur except for the 36-hole final and I was impressed with the intelligent approach the top amateur players in world, many of whom you’ll see on television playing on the LPGA in the not-too-distant future, took to playing Rolling Green.
   Yes, the equipment is vastly superior to the sticks of 40 years ago and the ball flies farther, but the women who teed it up at Rolling Green for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur respected the challenges the course put in front of them. They found the fairway off the tee, did everything in their power to keep their approach shots below the hole and, probably more than anything else, hit some of the greatest lag putts you’ll see when they found themselves putting from above the hole.
   Probably about the only surprising thing about Seong adding a Women’s Amateur title to the U.S. Girls’ Junior she won two weeks earlier, is that it hadn’t happened sooner. The Women’s Amateur has been dominated by 16- and 17-year-olds in recent years and the 16-year-old South Korean certainly fit the profile.
   Seong was the best ballstriker I saw at Rolling Green. But she had the kind of mental toughness a player needs to survive six matches. And Carta pushed Seong to the limit in the 36-hole final.
   Seong dominated her first three match-play opponents, but waiting in the quarterfinals was Andrea Lee, the very same player she had rallied to defeat in the Girls’ Junior final at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.
   They have become friends through several meetings in USGA events, but Seong needed everything she had to outlast the U.S. Curtis Cup team member, 1-up, the victory not secured until Lee’s par putt just slid by the cup.
   Give Carta credit, too. The Italian struck a blow for college golf by making the final and pushing Seong to the 36th hole, despite battling dizziness in the afternoon. As a freshman at Duke this spring, Carta blitzed the field to win the individual title at the NCAA Championship by eight shots.
   Lee, who will begin her college career at Stanford later this month, was the only American player left in the quarterfinal round, but that only reflects what a worldwide game women’s golf has become.
   Nasa Hataoka, the 17-year-old from Japan, is reportedly about to turn professional. I watched a lot of her 2 and 1 win over South Carolina senior Katelyn Dambaugh, one of the top players in college golf, in the third round of match play. Hataoka is a true talent.
   But even she was out-phenomed in the quarterfinal by Yuka Saso, the 15-year-old from the Philippines who was a stubborn 2 and 1 loser to Carta in the semifinals.
   Carta’s quarterfinal opponent, Mexico’s Maria Fassi, is an extremely talented player. Arkansas lost one of the top players in college golf when Gaby Lopez, also from Mexico, qualified for the LPGA midway through her senior season and turned professional. No problem. Fassi showed up for the second semester and made an immediate impact.
   Fassi had Carta 1-down with four holes to play when Carta suddenly turned the tables on her to win the match on the 17th hole.
   Seong’s semifinal opponent, France’s Mathilda Cappeliez, was 3-down to Australian Hannah Green with six holes to play in their quarterfinal match and rallied to win in 19 holes. The 19-year-old Green reportedly will turn pro soon. She looked ready.
   The 18-year-old Cappeliez will report to Wake Forest this month and boy, the Demon Deacons will be pretty tough this year. In addition to Cappeliez, Wake Forest will add Sierra Brooks, the U.S. Curtis Cup team member who lost in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur final, but couldn’t get it going at Rolling Green.
   They join a roster that includes senior Sierra Sims, who did earn a spot in match play at Rolling Green, and sophomore Jennifer Kupcho, who had a terrific college postseason as a freshman this spring. Throw in Erica Herr, the two-time PIAA champion at Council Rock North who will be a junior at Wake, and you have a pretty formidable group.
   And how about the two youngsters who finished 1-2 in the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying portion of the event?
   I watched all of the brilliant 65 fashioned by Mariel Galdiano, the UCLA-bound U.S. Curtis Cup team member from Pearl City, Hawaii, in the second round of qualifying, including a breathtaking run of four straight birdies. We haven’t heard the last of her.
   And Galdiano had to be good to overtake 13-year-old Lucy Li for medalist honors. I got to watch Li in action for a few holes and was impressed by her focus and how well she thinks the game at such a young age.
   There was some grumbling from some of the Rolling Green members that maybe the course was set up too easy if a 13-year-old girl could shoot 5-under, as Li did in the first round of qualifying. But no, she’s that good and years from now Rolling Green members will brag about how they knew she was going to be a star by the way she played their golf course when she was just a kid.
   Speaking of the Rolling Green membership, they put on a terrific tournament. The U.S. Women’s Amateur probably deserved more media attention than it got, but for those of us who were there, it sort of felt like our little secret.
   You could see all these great players up close and chat with their friends and parents in a lot of cases in a relaxed atmosphere. The weather was great, the shuttles to and from Cardinal O’Hara ran frequently.
   The general co-chairs, Matt Dupre and Dana Yermish, and their entire team did a tremendous job. And Springfield Township and Delaware County showed they know what to do when a world-class event is held in their corner of the world.





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