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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Strong amateur roster of six will play in ANA Inspiration

   Andrea Lee, who is having a spectacular freshman season at Stanford, and Eun Jeong Seong, who recorded an unprecedented USGA double last summer, will get to renew their friendly rivalry next week on a major stage.
   Lee and Seong are two of the six amateur invitees who will get to tee it up in the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the year which gets under way Thursday at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course of Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. With apologies to the event’s corporate sponsor, but it will always be the Dinah Shore to me.
   At age 16 last summer, Seong captured victories in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J. and the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Rolling Green Golf Club, the William Flynn gem in Springfield, Delaware County. In both cases, the South Korean had to get past Lee to claim those trophies.
   In the 36-hole Girls’ Junior final, Seong had to rally to defeat Lee, who hails from Hermosa Beach, Calif., 4 and 2, to become the first repeat winner of the event since Hollis Stacy won her third straight in 1971.
   A couple of weeks later at Rolling Green, Seong and Lee ran into each other again, this time in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Amateur. I got to see a lot of the match and it wasn’t decided until Lee’s par putt on the 18th hole somehow stayed out of the cup to give Seong a hard-fought 1-up victory. (You can find my blog post on that match Aug. 5, 2016).
   A couple of days later, Seong rolled in a dramatic 40-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole to edge Italy’s Virginia Elena Carta, who had won the NCAA individual title as a freshman at Duke earlier in the year, 1-up. The Girls’ Junior-Women’s Amateur double had never been done before.
   Seong, No. 12 in the latest Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), had a couple of strong showings in professional events late in 2016. She finished tied for 18th in KEB Hana Bank Championship, an LPGA event played in her native South Korea in October. Her 3-under total included a sparkling 6-under 66 in the second round.
   Seong then finished in a tie for sixth at the Oates Vic Open, a Ladies European Tour event in Australia in December. She threw a couple of 68s on the board in that one.
   Lee headed for Stanford, where she is the best player on the No. 1 team in the latest Golfstat rankings. Lee, No. 9 in the Women’s WAGR has won three tournaments and is the No. 2 player in college golf, again according to Golfstat.
   Lee isn’t the only Stanford freshman who will tee it up in the ANA Inspiration. Switzerland’s Albane Valenzuela, No. 4 in the Women’s WAGR, will also be in the field. Valenzuela represented Switzerland in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last summer, finishing 21st in a field largely populated by professionals.
   Valenzuela is making a return trip to the ANA Inspiration and was one of two amateurs to make the cut a year ago.
   The other will also be back in the field, 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Hannah O’Sullivan, No. 2 in the Women’s WAGR. Valenzuela and O’Sullivan, of Chandler, Ariz., finished tied for 65th a year ago.
   It looked like O’Sullivan was about to turn pro at one point last year. She had committed to play college golf at Southern California, but reconsidered that decision. O’Sullivan and Lee were teammates on the U.S. Curtis Cup team that fell to a talented Great Britain & Ireland side in Ireland.
   A 2016 schedule tightened worldwide by the return of golf to the Olympics left O’Sullivan with a tough call and she decided to tee it up in the Ricoh Women’s British Open rather than defend her Women’s Amateur title at Rolling Green.
   But just when it seemed like O’Sullivan was ready to turn pro, she reconsidered again and started accepting college offers. Late last year she announced she would join the Duke program beginning in the fall of 2017. She will join her Curtis Cup rival, Ireland’s Leona Maguire, a junior with the Blue Devils who sits atop the Women’s WAGR.
   Also in the field at Mission Hills will be South Carolina senior Katelyn Dambaugh, the runnerup to UCLA’s Bronte Law in voting for the Annika Award last year. I got to see the talented left-hander, No. 7 in the Women’s WAGR, quite a bit at Rolling Green last summer. She was ousted in the round of 16 by very talented Japanese teenager Nasa Hataoka in a crackling match (Got a blog post on that, too, Aug. 4, 2016).
   Dambaugh teamed with Lee and Mariel Galdiano, a freshman at UCLA, to help the United States finish sixth in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Mexico. She shared the lead after the opening round of the LPGA Qualifying School Final Stage at the end of 2016 – Hataoka, the youngest player in the field, was a shot back in a tie for third – although Dambaugh wasn’t really planning to turn pro right then and there, a decision she might have faced had she finished in the top 20.
   Dambaugh faded out of the top 20 in the 90-hole marathon at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Fla., but earned some status for the Symetra Tour when she does turn pro after completing her senior season with the Gamecocks. Hataoka did earn a Tour card.
   Rounding out the group of six amateurs invited to play in the ANA Inspiration is Thailand’s Paphangkorn Tavalanakit, the 2016 American Junior Golf Association Rolex Junior Player of the Year. I didn’t catch Tavalanakit at Rolling Green, but she was there. She made it to the round of 16 before falling, 1-up, to France’s Mathilda Cappeliez, who was on her way to a second straight Women’s Amateur semifinal appearance.
   Tavalanakit has committed to join the UCLA program in the fall.
   One more amateur will be added to the field after this weekend’s ANA Junior Inspiration at Mission Hills. The winner will get to move to the big stage.

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