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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Seong, Carta will be trying to rewrite golf history at Rolling Green

   SPRINGFIELD – No matter which of the U.S. Women’s Amateur finalists wins Sunday at Rolling Green Golf Club, she’ll be making history.
   So which would be the more impressive double? The one South Korea’s Eun Jeong Seong is bidding for, capturing the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the same year, something no one has ever done? Or the one Italy’s Virginia Elena Carter is going for, winning the NCAA individual title and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the same year, something that has been done just once before by Vicki Goetze in 1992?
   Just the fact that the 19-year-old Carta has made the Women’s Amateur final is something of a feat in itself. The Women’s Amateur was once dominated by college golfers on their way to bigger and better things in professional golf.
   But in recent years, it has been juniors who have dominated the event. Last year’s final pitted a couple of girls headed into their senior year in high school, Hannah O’Sullivan and Sierra Brooks. That phenomena can partly be attributed to the level of competitiveness in junior golf between American Junior Golf Association events and other junior events around the country.
   The younger players are just better prepared than ever to compete at a high level and they are coming from all over the world.
   Another aspect of it, though, is what a tough grind the college season is, particularly if an individual makes a deep run into the postseason as Carta and Duke did.
   Early in the week, Jackie Rogowicz, a former Pennsbury standout who had an outstanding freshman season at Penn State, commented that as a junior player, summer was when she tried to be playing at the highest level, but now, as a college player, fall and spring are the focus of her preparation.
   The field Carta decimated at the NCAA Championship at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore. was  incredibly strong. Entering the 2015-'16 golf season, Carta was considered, at best, the third best player on the Duke roster. Leona Maguire of Ireland was the No. 1 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking and Celine Boutier of France, who made a deep run at Rolling Green as well, had been a key figure in the Blue Devils’ run to the 2014 NCAA team championship.
   But Carta blitzed the field at Eugene with rounds of 69, 68, 66 and 69 for a 16-under 272 total that was eight shots clear of her fellow competitors. She credited that run to the NCAA title with helping her overcome a rough patch in her 2 and 1 victory over Yuka Saso, a 15-year-old phenom from the Philippines, in Saturday’s semifinals over the 6,259-yard, par-71 William Flynn design.
   Carta had won the ninth and 10th holes with pars to finally get a 1-up advantage on the pesky Saso. It looked like she might extend that lead at the par-4 12th when Carta was on the green in two while Saso was bunkered. But in a classic match-play turnaround, Saso played a brilliant bunker shot to make par and Carta three-putted for bogey. Just like that, the match was all square again.
   “The things that I brought from nationals is to see bad things in a positive way,” said Carta, No. 18 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. “I was like, OK, this is going to be great because now you have to be great, because now to have to be even more focused on the next shot and to believe it was more than what you are actually doing. So, that was great. Three-putting like that was great.”
   She got the lead back with a par on the 195-yard, par-3 14th hole, a hole that was a turning point on so many matches this week. And then she finally put Saso away with a majestic second shot into the par-5 17th hole that rolled within 12 feet of the hole. Carta needed only to lag her eagle putt to win the match.
   The double the 16-year-old Seong, No. 22 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking coming to Rolling Green, is trying to accomplish has never been tougher either.
   You need to look no further than one Andrea Lee to see how tough it can be to win the Girls’ Junior and the Women’s Amateur in the same summer. The 17-year-old from Hermosa Beach, Calif., a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team, was the final hurdle Seong had to overcome in the Girls’ Junior two weeks ago on a composite course at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.
   Lee had Seong 5-down through 13 holes of the scheduled 36-hole final before Seong rallied. And there was Lee again in Friday’s quarterfinals at Rolling Green. Seong’s 1-up victory was not assured until Lee’s par putt turned away from the hole.
   In Saturday’s semifinals, Seong faced another tough customer in France’s Mathilda Cappeliez, an 18-year-old who will join the Wake Forest program later this month and who had lost to O’Sullivan in last year’s semifinals.
   Cappeliez had repeatedly come from behind during her march to the semifinals. And while Seong never trailed Saturday morning, she never led by more than a hole until sealing the 2 and 1 victory at the par-5 17th.
   Cappeliez had a golden opportunity to get even with a five-foot putt for par after blasting out of a bunker at the par-3 14th, but missed it. Her miss also coincided with some slow-play warnings being issued to the pair, although it didn’t really seem to affect them noticeably.
   Seong, whose ballstriking has been so solid all week, put her considerable talent on display again as she put the match away on the next hole. She hit a knockdown wedge approach into the par-4 15th that caught the slope perfectly and gave her a four-foot birdie opportunity. She did not miss it, giving her a 2-up advantage with three holes to play.
   “I think other players are more tired, that they make mistakes some holes,” said Seong, who owns a spectacular 24-4 record in USGA matches. “That’s why I can win easy going to the back nine.”
   Only three other players have even had the opportunity to complete the Girls’ Junior-Women’s Amateur double. The 1956 Girls’ Junior champion JoAnne Gunderson (who was known as JoAnne Carner when she won the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open at Rolling Green) lost in the Women’s Amateur final, 2 and 1, to Marlene Streit, 1989 Girls’ Junior winner Brandie Burton fell in the Women’s Amateur final, 4 and 3, to Goetze and 2001 Girls’ Junior champion Nicole Perrot lost in the Women’s Amateur final on the 37th hole to Meredith Duncan.
   So I’m going to give Seong the edge on degree of difficulty for what she is trying to achieve. Part of the reasoning is the toughness of the courses and the always demanding setup the players get from the USGA. Seong not only to survive a host of tough match-play challengers, but she’s doing it at Ridgewood and Rolling Green, two neat old-school courses that are really tough tests.
   Seong has already made some history this summer by becoming the first repeat Girls’ Junior winner since Hall of Famer Hollis Stacy won the last of her three straight titles in 1971. What she’ll be trying to accomplish Sunday has never been done.
   But some of the college players Carta put in the rear-view mirror in Eugene will no doubt be rooting for her to complete that rare double of NCAA Tournament and U.S. Women’s Amateur wins.

   My live blogging from Rolling Green is done with this report as I won’t be in attendance at Sunday’s scheduled 36-hole final. But I’ll be thinking a lot about a great week at William Flynn’s creation and I’ll come back at some point next week with some observations and perspective from what has been a great event for Rolling Green, for Delaware County and for golf fans all over the region.

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