Friday, July 30, 2010

Futures Tour Road Trip: Day 1 (Hannah Yun, Lori Atsedes, Virada Nirapathpongporn, Pornanong Phatlum, Jane Rah)

Joely Pique has the rundown of the 1st round of the Alliance Bank Golf Classic. As you can see, scoring was pretty low, with 12 players breaking 70, led by rookie Dolores White's fine 66, and 28 players shooting par or better. So let me tell you about what you can't see from the scorecards. I was at Drumlins East for about 8 hours today--having gotten up around 4:15 am (that was a lot of fun) yet not leaving for Syracuse until after 5:20 (I was moving in slow motion), I didn't get there until 8:10 (I was driving fast)--so I got to see a lot of golf and many golfers (even if I was yawning all day). I'll focus on the ones I paid the most attention to.

But first let me set the scene. The weather was perfect for watching golf. It was already in the high 60s when I arrived at the course and it stayed in the 70s the rest of the time I was there. It was sunny, with increasing clouds as the day wore on, but it never got even mostly cloudy. We had a light breeze in the early morning, but by 11:30 it had become a pretty serious wind. Especially on the back, which got pretty elevated from the 11th green to the 16th tee, it became a major headache for the players. So on the whole it was a better day for watching than playing. Drumlins had gotten some rain last week, so everything was very green, but the greens started the day firm and got firmer as the sun and winds did their work. Combined with narrow, undulating fairways, the small, quick, often elevated greens made scoring very difficult. I would have been happy to break 80 today (assuming I hadn't hurt my back and had been playing all week instead of recovering) and overjoyed to have a chance to break 75. It's funny, because my 2-decades-old memories of Drumlins East are of a pretty easy course, but I think that's because I remembered the easier front side much better than the much more difficult back. Until I walked every hole except the 2nd and 3rd today, that is.

All right, so what sticks out in my short-term memory about the course now? Well, the 15th is a tough, tough par 4: a blindish tee shot with a fairway that pitches left and pinches in exactly where you want to leave your drive; a tough, blind 2nd shot uphill to a green that's elevated and runs sharply right to left yet sits in a little valley, surrounded by trees, with a cliff about 50 yards short right to catch any really bad mishits (they even have a chain-link fence for about 50 feet to block you from the edge!); and, oh yeah, the nastiest pin of the day, tucked in the front-left corner of the green (hard to reach with a long or mid-iron, hard to reach with a pitch or run shot if you miss the green, hard to keep your putt on the green if you're anywhere above it). Tough par 3s: the 6th is long and has trees all down the left side; the 8th is short but goes straight uphill so that you can't even see the bunker guarding the front right of the green, much less the green itself; the 12th is long and a little uphill, but it's the deep valley and shrub-tree trouble right that make it even harder; the 16th is medium length and straight downhill, but it was really tough to club yourself, particularly with the wind gusting to 20 mph. Plus you can make the short pars 4s tough just by putting the pins way in the front (as on 3, 10, and 17) or way in the back (as on 9, 11, and 14). If the greens were soft, it wouldn't be a problem, but I saw a lot of players have a lot of trouble holding them today. And trying to bounce the ball in from short of the greens was no picnic either. Some landing areas were very firm, some even sounded like drums when the ball would land on then, but a lot had soft spots.

So it was definitely hard to get the ball close to the pin today. And there weren't many spots to leave your ball near the greens that would leave you with easy chips or short pitches. If your irons weren't on, it was going to be a long day. And you could be hitting your approach shots really solid and still run into trouble: via misjudging, misclubbing, bad trajectory, bad bounces (from off or on the green), too much or too little spin.... And I don't recall seeing a putt longer than about 8 feet actually fall. What I'm trying to get at it that it was a tough day on which to go low.

And yet people did. Hannah Yun opened with a bogey-free 33 on the front, and it could have been much better. She failed to birdie either of the opening par 5s and she had legitimate birdie chances on the 4 other holes she parred. I caught up to her group as they played the 4th hole, so I missed her birdie on 3, but I got to chat with her mom off and on for the rest of the front side and see her consistently leave approach shots in smart places. All in all it was a tantalizing side, because she never made a putt longer than about 8 feet and she never had a putt longer than about 18 feet. (Even though playing partner and Ithaca native Lori Atsedes had her share of birdie chanes on the front, as well, she wasn't as precise with her irons or her putter and could only manage a 37. She didn't pick up her game when her folks showed up on the back, either. But the mere fact that she's playing at all after the parked car she was in got hit by a drunk driver in June impressed the heck out of me.)

Now, I didn't get to witness the 32s on the front by Dolores White, Cindy LaCrosse, or Laura Crawford from the morning groups, but I was most impressed by Jane Rah's and Virada Nirapathpongporn's from the afternoon pairings. Both had frustrating back 9s to start their day, although for different reasons.

I got to see Nirapathpongporn play her 1st 2 holes solidly if unspectacularly in +1 after a failed sandie attempt on 11, but when I left to chase down the Llano-Pornanong-Rah pairing a few holes ahead of them, I missed seeing her bogey 12, triple the par-5 13th (after somehow hitting her drive so far left she had to take an unplayable from the right of the 12th!), and follow up a birdie on the short par-4 14th with a bogey on the tough 15th, but I did have time to loop back and see her make a good par save on 17 and an acceptable bogey from the sand on the 18th, which was playing long into the wind. For her to bounce back from an opening 41 with a bogey-free 32 on the front was simply amazing. All it took was an eagle on the 1st par 5 on the front, a birdie on the 2nd, a bunch of pars, and a birdie on the 8th. No problem. Even when things were looking grim on the back, she kept her cool and kept plugging away.

Rah, by contrast, was an emotional wreck on the back, even though she ended up with an even-par 35. She was agitated from the 1st moment I saw her, when she hit her approach on 14 a little thin and it ran all the way to the back of the green. I figured she had had a big number, maybe on the short, tight, uphill par-4 11 or the hazardous par-3 12th or the tricky par-5 13th, but as it turned out she went birdie-bogey-birdie on those holes. She made a good comebacker to save par there, but when she bogeyed 15 after a perfect drive, she stared off into the woods to the right of the 16th tee for a long time to calm herself down. Well, she calmed down enough, as she made good par saves on each of the next 3 holes. When I left her after a good drive on 1, I figured she had shot anywhere from a 36 to a 39 on the back and was too mad at herself to take advantage of the front. Shows what little I know: she only started out with 3 straight birdies, offset a bogey on the 4th with a birdie on the 5th, and made her 5th birdie of the front on the 7th. I guess for some people getting mad at themselves is a good motivator!

The player who impressed me the most today, however, was Pornanong Phatlum. She played the back with the winds up and controlled her irons on the 14th through 18th as well as Yun did on the comparatively less breezy front, parring every hole. I was particularly impressed because Yun found it much harder to give herself birdie chances on the back, while Phatlum had 1 on every hole I saw except the 18th (where she made a great up and down to save par). It's true that Yun caught some bad breaks on the back--she hit perfect wedges in on 14 and 17 that landed a few feet short of the pin and kicked hard, well past the hole (and added insult to injury when she 3-putted the latter) and hit a 7-iron so flush from the left rough on 18 that it powered through the wind and trickled off the back of the green, ending up lying against the surprisingly heavy rough right off the fringe (she ended up making a good bogey save there)--but Phatlum was just sharper on the tougher 9. Plus she controlled the speed of her putts better than Yun did on that side. Whereas Yun was ramming her putts by the hole and leaving herself a lot of 3- to 6-foot comebackers, Phatlum was making a lot of routine pars. Yes, a bogey midway through the front ended her momentum from 2 early birdies, forcing her to accept a 72, but Phatlum's overall game impressed me as LPGA ready right now. Not having seen her go bogey-bogey start to her round on the back, I assumed she was going to be well under par today. Well, there's always tomorrow!

There's much more to be told, but too little time (and energy). I'm calling it a night!

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