With the weather forecast dicey for Sunday, the organizers of the Alliance Bank Golf Classic sent the players off on both tees for the final round, so I got up relatively early to drive to Syracuse and follow Hannah Yun's group for their 1st 10 holes and Tiffany Joh's for their last 9. In other words, I got to see a lot of--and walk--the tougher back 9 at Drumlin's East.
Just like I accidentally got to see the last 2 holes of Stuart Appleby's 59 when I got home, my decision to follow Yun's group as they played the 1st hole (their 10th) and wait for Joh's group at the 10th green instead of the tee allowed me to see some unexpected fireworks. As I was walking the treeline between the 2 holes, I happened to notice a player who turned out to be Jessica Carafiello hit a fantastic wedge into 10. It was tracking toward the hole from the moment it left her clubface and stayed right on that line until it found the bottom of the cup. Then Ryan O'Toole chipped in from the back right of the green for birdie and Dori Carter poured in a 20-footer for 1 of her own! I also got to see Danah Ford Bordner off and on over the course of the back, as she was playing with Pornanong Phatlum in the group before T-Joh's, which was pretty cool, because she followed up a bogey-free 31 on the front with a sweet 34 on the tough back for the low round of the day (with Selanee Henderson) and a solo 3rd finish.
But my goal wasn't to watch the leaders or the hottest golfers on the course that day. No, I wanted to follow up on my earlier observations of Yun, Joh, and Garrett Phillips (who was playing with T-Joh) and learn a little something about Nontaya Srisawang (who played with Joh and Phillips) and Ayaka Kaneko (who played with Yun and Laura Bavaird). So let me start by comparing and contrasting the players who were new to me, despite the fact that I watched them a couple of hours apart in reality.
Both Kaneko and Srisawang are very disciplined, deliberate players, but they are at different points in their careers and working on different parts of their game. Kaneko, who was born in Tokyo and moved to Honolulu, was focused on grooving her downswing, so her pre-shot routine was all about repeatedly practicing its lower half and finish. As a result, it felt like I was watching her play a practice round, not a tournament round. She was swinging smoothly and making clean contact most of the time, but I never really got the sense she was focused on minimizing her score. After making bogeys on the short uphill par-4 11th and sharply downhill par-3 16th when she mishit her irons, she played the short par-4 17th perfectly and made her 1st birdie of the day with a good sweeping downhill 10-footer. Even though she was only +1 when I left her to the easier front side, I never had the feeling she was going to take advantage of it--and it turns out she didn't.
Whereas Kaneko was focused predominantly on her swing, Srisawang was all about course management. She clearly had a plan of attack and she stuck to it with admirable tenacity, even though her bogey on 11 (when she mishit her approach shot and failed to get up and down after pulling an 8-footer) left her a birdieless +4 at that point in her round. But she never gave up on her strategy or her routine. It's clear she knows the strength of her game is her iron play--I didn't see anyone more in control of her distance or trajectory or spin or positioning in the 3 days I watched (and I saw several great ball-strikers)--so she did whatever it took to put herself in good position for her approach shots, even if it meant leaving driver in the bag on attack-able holes. For instance, on 11 she left her lay-up off the tee 10 to 15 yards shorter than most players, who tried to get to the very edge of the lower fairway and as a result had to deal with downhill and/or sidehill lies, unless they tried to go a few yards further into an uphill lie, but from the rough. By contrast, Srisawang left herself with a flatter lie than most, only slightly uphill but and from the middle of the fairway, which promoted a soft landing on the very hard green. Even though she didn't execute her approach shot well, the plan was flawless. Similarly, on the short par-4 14th, which many players were attacking with drivers or fairway metals all week, she laid back off the tee with an iron. And she was able to execute from closer to 150 yards out than 100, just as she had on the short par 5 before it, putting both approach shots in perfect position and sinking 12-to-15-foot uphill putts for birdies. In fact, she gave herself a great chance to make it 3 in a row on the tough 15th with an even better approach, but couldn't convert a very make-able putt there. But the 18th was probably the best example of how much confidence Srisawang has in her irons. She hit the shortest drive in her group but she had a good angle into the green, which most players I saw had trouble hitting (they missed it right, left, long, short--even when they were landing short irons or wedges on the green, most were bouncing or rolling off). And she took the most aggressive line possible, playing a very high short iron to a 15-foot-diameter circle between the pin and the rough that lay between the trap and the fringe guarding the front right of the green. Her shot landed dead center in that circle on the very front of the gree and stuck after the 1st bounce, giving her a great birdie opportunity, which she converted, offsetting the bogey that had resulted from her last mishit iron of the tournament off the 16th tee. On a day that didn't start anything like she hoped it would, she stuck to her game plan, improved her execution, sank some key putts, and recovered from a terrible 39 on the front with a strong 34 on the back. And except for quiet frustration with her tee shot on 16, you never could have told how she was playing by looking at her.
T-Joh, on the other hand, plays with a lot of emotion. She's not at all vocal about it (which may come as a bit of a shock to those who know how she is off the course!), but it's written all over her face and body language. I could tell that she had had a very disappointing front 9 from her reaction to her approach shot on 10 and posture as she carried her bag (for the 3rd day in a row) to the rough just behind the green to the right of the pin where her ball ended up. I didn't know at the time that she had bogeyed both opening par 5s (to go +4 in her previous 5 holes, dating back to the end of Saturday's round) and failed to make a birdie anywhere on the front, but it was pretty obvious that she was pretty disgusted with her play and frustrated to be nowhere near contention after being right in the mix on the 2 previous Sundays. Whereas Srisawang dealt with her disappointment by focusing more intently on her game plan and routine, T-Joh had clearly decided to throw caution to the winds and attack every pin in an effort to make something happen. On 10, she had missed her drive short right and may have even had a little tree trouble to deal with, but she still tried to play a fade to the back of the green to offset the right-to-left slope. It didn't work (she pushed it), but she made a good up and down to save par. Then she almost slam dunked her approach after laying up on 11 and had some bad luck when her ball bounced hard and ran to the very back of the green's upper tier. On the long par-3 12th, she tried to draw an iron in from the left-center of the green to the back-left pin and caught some more bad luck when she pulled it slightly and the ball happened to land right in a subtle valley on the green's extreme left side that kicked it left off the green almost pin-high. She hit a bad drive on the par-5 13 and hit her lay-up too far into the left rough, but she didn't care. She fired a short iron that was tracking toward the pin and almost landed in the cup on its 1st bounce, but like so many others before it ran to the very back of the green. On 14, where she had had to save par the previous day when her drive hit a tree at the left end of the tee box's chute and she had to play to the fat part of the green with a hybrid, she played conservatively off the tee, laying back just past Srisawang's ball, and followed up Srisawang's perfect approach with a very good one of her own that finally got some spin, taking the right-to-left slope to 12 feet behind the pin, which she converted for her 1st birdie of the day. She continued her swashbuckling ways on 15 and 16--laying up with a 3-wood on the former to stay in the fairway and making sure that she didn't overshoot the green on the latter (as she had the day before)--and ended up sticking a short iron as impressive as Srisawang's was to be on the 18th for a short birdie of her own on the tricky par 3. Although she missed a makeable birdie putt on 17 and had to save bogey on 18 when she pulled her drive into the left hay and after her punch-out had yet another approach shot on that hole land on the green and bounce/roll over it, she was a lot of fun to watch. She went for broke and did everything in her power to try to move up the leaderboard, but had to settle for a 72 that left her at even-par for the tournament and T14.
Meanwhile, Yun and Phillips had the lowest scores of the players I focused on, but both had frustrating 71s. Yun got off on the wrong foot with a pushed approach shot, a babied chip, and a tentative putt on 10, then rattled off a string of pars until she was again in perfect position on 17, but flew her wedge from the fairway about 5 feet too short, then caught her pitch-and-run shot a little thin and failed to make the tough 12-foot downhill par save. That 2nd bogey of the day brought her to +4 on the 17th alone--in contrast to both her playing partners, who birdied it (as did both of T-Joh's playing partners!). Still, after a good par save on 18 (when she once again landed a well-struck approach on the green, only to see it bounce off), she actually had her lowest score on the back, so even though she couldn't manage to get up and down for birdie from the rough just left and short of the highly elevated and undulating 1st green, I had a strong feeling she was going to go low on her last 8 holes. As it turned out, she made a long putt for birdie on the tough par-3 6th and a shorter one for birdie on the short par-4 7th to close with a 34, but it was still a tough day for her. She told me after the round that her opening 71 felt so easy (despite her bad finish), but that she really had to grind for the same score on a much more stressful Sunday. She only hit a couple of drives pure all day, so was leaving herself with longer and more difficult approaches and didn't give herself many good birdie chances. Phillips, meanwhile, had what turned out to be a typical round for her at Drumlins--excellent ballstriking, lots of birdie opportunities, little to show for them. She was -1 over her last 12 holes of bogey-free golf, recovering from a tough start to shoot a solid 34 on the back, but because the only putt that dropped for her was a great read on a tricky sidehill-downhill 7-footer on 17 (following up a 290-yard-plus drive and a well-judged pitch), it felt like a much higher score.
In the end, Cindy LaCrosse was the only player to tame Drumlins East, going 67-66-68 for a 3-shot win over Amelia Lewis that came down to the final 4 holes. Neither Lewis nor Jane Rah could match LaCrosse's feat of 3 straight sub-70 rounds, despite the fact that Drumlins gave up more of them on Sunday than either of the 2 previous days (but still only 14). With rain in the area but not much falling on us, and even then not very hard or for very long, the weather was again very cooperative--warm enough for balls to fly far and calm enough that players didn't have to think too hard about club selection--but once again the hard and firm greens made even approach shots with short irons an adventure. I was happy to find out that Jennifer Song, Virada Nirapathpongporn, and Dewi Claire Schreefel each shot 67s, hopefully giving them some momentum to move up the Futures Tour money list in the last 3 events of the season leading up to sectional qualifying for LPGA Q-School in the middle and end of September for those who don't finish in the top 5 on the money list or who want to improve on the limited standing a finish between 6th and 10th gives them for 2011. Those who want to stay sharp in October can play the Cactus Tour--those who don't have LPGA or LET status, that is--but it's a long wait until the final qualifying tournament in December.
This week is the Pennsylvania Classic in Harrisburg, and I'd be there if I didn't have the New York State Mid-Amateur qualifier in 2 weeks. The Ya Ni Tseng-Katherine Hull battle at Birkdale was truly moving golf, but there's something about players just getting started in their professional careers trying to break through and make quantum leaps of their own that's just as compelling.
[Update 1 (10:44 pm): Wonder how hard it would be for non-Asian golfers to get into the late-October and early November LAGT events. Srisawang, Phatlum, and Nirapathpongporn didn't stand out in the spring part of thr schedule, but I have to assume they'll be heading back. Wonder who else will join them?]