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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

For Dambaugh, the Volvik Race for the Card was a sprint

   I mentioned more than a few times in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club that it was a great opportunity to see some future LPGA players.
   So it’s no surprise that of the 10 players who graduated from the Symetra Tour to the LPGA – the Volvik Race for the Card because just about everything has a corporate sponsor these days – three made deep runs at Rolling Green.
   The woman who I ended up watching the most at Rolling Green, South Carolina product Katelyn Dambaugh, had to sweat it out on the final weekend of the Symetra Tour Championship at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Fla. after failing to make the cut, but she held on to the No. 10 spot on the money list to earn her LPGA Tour card.
   It’s been a month since the Symetra Tour Championship and I was running around covering various PIAA and Inter-Ac League championships, but I was curious to see how many alumni of that Rolling Green Women’s Amateur would make it through.
   I caught Dambaugh in the opening round of match play at Rolling Green because she was playing Aurora Kan, whose high school career at Chichester I had chronicled for the Delco Daily Times. Kan, a year removed from an outstanding career at Purdue, had survived a playoff to earn a spot in the match-play bracket, a feat in itself, a Delco girl making match play at Rolling Green, the William Flynn gem that sits just off State Road in the heart of Delco.
   I’ve been a fan of Dambaugh’s since catching her on TV in the final of the 2010 U.S. Junior Girls’ Championship at Pinehurst in 2010. She lost to Doris Chen, but the left-hander, even then, had the same kind of dynamic game as that of her idol, Phil Mickelson.
   Dambaugh was coming off a spectacular junior year at South Carolina. She was the runnerup to UCLA’s Bronte Law for the ANNIKA Award. In my mind, she was on the short list of players capable of winning at Rolling Green.
   Dambaugh overwhelmed Kan in the early stages of the match, winning five of the first six holes to take a 5-up lead. But Kan, who won both the Pennsylvania Women’s Amateur and the PIAA championships in 2010, wasn’t backing down.
   Kan fought back to 2-down heading to the 12th hole when Dambaugh hit one of the best shots I saw that week, and believe me, I saw a ton of them. Caught on the upslope of a bunker on the right side of the uphill 12th, Dambaugh launched an approach shot that went right over the flag, caught the backstop behind the hole and rolled four feet from the pin.
   She won the hole with a birdie and went on to claim a 4 and 3 victory over Kan.
   The following morning, Dambaugh knocked off 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kristen Gillman, 2 and 1. Gillman, a sophomore at Alabama, is one of the best players in college golf right now.
   There were any number of great matchups I could have watched in the round of 16 that afternoon. But I settled on Dambaugh against Japanese teen standout Nasa Hataoka. I was rewarded with an afternoon of brilliant golf by both players.
   Hataoka, playing from a little ahead all day, finally pulled out a 2 and 1 win, but not until Dambaugh’s 45-foot putt for eagle took a long look at the bottom of the cup before curling around the hole.
   Four months later at Stage III, the Final Stage, of LPGA Qualifying School, Dambaugh grabbed a share of the opening-round lead in the 90-hole marathon with a 5-under 67. Hataoka was in a group tied for third, a shot back. I was utterly unsurprised.
   If you finish in the top 20 at Stage III, you do not pass go, you go right to the LPGA Tour. If you’re an amateur, you have to decide, pretty much on the spot, that you’re turning pro or the offer of the LPGA Tour card is rescinded. 
   Dambaugh finished tied for 35th, so she never had to make the call. But she had every intention of returning to South Carolina for the second half of her senior season. She had gained some status on the Symetra Tour, which she could take advantage of when she graduated. But the other players would have a headstart in the Volvik Race for the Card.
   On her way out the door, Dambaugh fired a brilliant 6-under 66 in the final round at Greystone Golf & Country Club for a 12-under 204 total to capture the Southeast Conference individual crown over a field littered with future LPGA players.
   The Volvik Race for the Card was a marathon for most players on the Symetra Tour. For the 23-year-old Dambaugh, it was a sprint. She had 12 events to try to make the top 10. She finished in the top 10 in 10 of them. The LPGA stats tell me she putted the eyes out of it.
   She pocketed $63,023, held on to the 10th spot and got to stand with nine other players, many of them her friends from college and amateur golf, with an oversized poster with her name on it. She made it. As if there was ever any doubt.
   In the history of the Symetra Tour, only two players had ever exceeded $100,000 in earnings in a season. In 2017, three players did it, led by leading money winner Benyapa Nipohatsophon, a 20-year-old from Thailand who pocketed $124,492.
   Nipohatsophon had reached the LPGA Tour in 2016 and didn’t make enough money to retain her playing privileges. Back on the Symetra, she didn’t win in 2017, but finished second five times. It’s the kind on consistency that’s rewarded in professional golf.
   Nos. 2 and 3 on the list, the other two $100K-plus earners, were at Rolling Green, played each other in that remarkable round of 16. That would be Hannah Green, a 20-year-old from Australia, and Celine Boutier, a 23-year-old from France and a member of Duke’s 2014 national championship team.
   Green was 19 two summers ago, but she was no kid. She has the ability to overpower a golf course. She got past Boutier, 4 and 3, in the round of 16. Green had a four-footer for par on the 18th against Boutier’s countrywoman, Mathilda Cappeliez, to get to the semifinals, but missed it and lost on the 19th hole.
   Green won three times on the Symetra Tour, which earns you immediate promotion to the LPGA Tour. She finished second on the Symetra money list with $113,880 and was named the Gaelle Truet Rookie of the Year.
   The 23-year-old Boutier won twice in 2017 and earned $112,044.
   Five of the 10 survivors of the Volvik Race for the Card were rookies, including Green, Boutier and Dambaugh. The other two were Nanna Koerstz Madsen, a 22-year-old from Denmark, the fourth-leading money winner with $93,115, and Lindsey Weaver, a 24-year-old former Arizona standout from Bellefontaine, Ohio who finished seventh on the money list with $76,755. Madsen played collegiately at South Carolina, so I’m pretty sure she and Dambaugh were teammates at some point in Columbia.
   Also earning LPGA Tour cards in the Volvik Race for the Card were Yu Liu (fifth,  $86,110), a 21-year-old from China who was a teammate of Boutier’s on Duke’s 2014 NCAA national championship team; Erynee Lee (sixth, $80,780), a 24-year-old former UCLA standout from Silverdale, Wash.; Anne-Catherine Tanguay (eighth, $76,663), a 26-year-old former Oklahoma standout from Canada; and Emma Talley (ninth, $76,556), a 23-year-old from Princeton, Ky. who is one of five women in the history of the game to own both an NCAA individual title (in 2015 at Alabama) and a U.S. Women’s Amateur title (in 2013 at the Country Club of Charleston).
   By the way, the winner of the Symetra Tour Championship was none other than Rachel Rohanna. It’s been 10 years since I wandered up to the Heritage Hills Golf Resort in York County to see how Kan would do in her freshman year at the PIAA Tournament.
   Kan finished tied for fifth, the worst she would do at Heritage Hills, following it up with second, second and first. But the winner was Rohanna as a junior at Waynesburg. She was a four-year standout at Ohio State and has bounced between the LPGA and Symetra the last few years.
   Rohanna fired a final round of 4-under 68 to finish 13-under and win the Symetra Tour Championship. It wasn’t enough to lift her into the top 10 that would have guaranteed her an LPGA Tour card, but it gives a ton of confidence going into Stage III of LPGA Qualifying School, which tees off Nov. 27 right back at LPGA International in Daytona Beach.
   Wouldn’t be surprised if another alum from that U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green gets in the mix for an LPGA Tour card.

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