Thursday, August 4, 2011

Futures Tour Road Trip, Day 2 (Hannah Yun, Lizette Salas, Laura Nochta-Martin)

With Hannah Yun unexpectedly making the cut at the Alliance Bank Golf Classic last Saturday in Syracuse, I decided to go to Drumlins East early Sunday morning to follow her, Lizette Salas, and Laura Nochta-Martin. On the way to the course I had some vague thoughts of switching over after 9 holes to Stephanie Kim, Ayaka Kaneko, and Izzy Beisiegel, who as it turned out were starting on the 1st tee at just the right time for me to do so (the 1st and 10th leave the clubhouse and putting area parallel to each other, so it would have been easy to do the switch at any time on or right after those holes), but I decided against it for various reasons.

First, Nochta-Martin's hard luck and mental toughness. I had noticed her on Saturday just ahead of the Yun/Dye/Sadekar group because her right knee was wrapped, but I only found out the next day what had happened from her parents. They told me that she had been driving a cart during a practice round when a course employee came screaming around a corner looking backwards and talking to a co-worker in the cart behind him; she had been able to respond quickly and stop her cart, giving her playing partner just enough time to bail out of the passenger seat, but he couldn't react in time and front-ended her, totalling both carts. Fortunately, her only serious injuries were bruises to her right knee, but she could barely bend it Friday morning and made 3 bogeys and a double in her 1st 5 holes on the tough back 9 in pouring rain. Refusing to withdraw, she built on her birdie on the par-4 14th with 3 birdies and only 1 bogey over the rest of her round, posting a gutsy 74. She had followed it up with another 74 the next day, putting her with Yun and Salas just on the right side of the cut line. By the time we reached the 10th hole Sunday, she was already +3 on her day, as she simply couldn't buy a putt on the front. Her pace was great and her reads were good, but the putts just weren't dropping. So one reason I stayed was to see if they would start to on the back for her.

Another reason was the chance to see a future star in the making in Salas. Here's someone who shot a 69 in the 1st round of the U.S. Women's Open and hung on for a T15 finish just after finishing a stellar college career at USC, where she was a teammate of LPGA rookie Jennifer Song. Although Salas had missed a tap-in for par on the easy par-4 3rd and needed a great up-and-down to save bogey on the tough par-3 6th, she had also made 3 impressive birdies (a virtual dissection of the par-5 2nd, a fantastic chip-in on the par-4 5th, and a laser to 4 feet on the uphill par-3 8th), and I wanted to see how she'd play the tougher back 9 after opening with a 35.

But besides not wanting to walk the front again and enjoying the feeling of being virtually alone on the course on such a nice morning (as the pacesetting twosome ahead of us has left us in the dust and the threesome following us had fallen a little further behind than usual), the main reason I didn't switch groups was Yun. She had struggled with her distance control and short game in her 73 the day before, but she was in the zone Sunday, making 5 birdies in her 1st 10 holes and either giving herself a great look at a birdie or making such a great attempt from afar on the other 5 holes that I wouldn't have been surprised if she had been -7 or -8 as she headed to the 11th tee instead of "only" -5. I simply had to see what happened next.

I got the feeling that Nochta-Martin and Salas felt the same way. The former made 10 pars in a row between the 8th and the 17th holes and must have been robbed half a dozen times, the most egregious coming when the pin bounced a perfectly-paced chip for birdie out of the hole on the 14th, but she stayed in great spirits and could only laugh at how bad her luck was that day. Salas, for her part, bogeyed the tricky uphill par-4 11th but bounced back with a great par save after she put her drive in the right trees on the tough par-4 15th and birdied the tricky downhill par-3 16th for an even-par 35 on the back, but something she did on the 14th green made me believe that even she had turned into a little bit of a spectator on the back. I'll get to that in a second, but let's go back to the 11th tee and proceed in chronological order.

When I'm walking Drumlins, I usually like to leave the 10th green a little early and get a head start on the players so I can walk about 2/3 of the way up the 11th's hill and watch their lay-ups or drives from above (the 2-tier fairway requires either an iron or hybrid to the end of the lower tier or the rough that separates it from the upper tier, or a bold drive that needs to thread the needle between trees on the left and high grasses very close to the right rough). But doing that that day would have meant interfering with the Kim/Kaneko/Beisiegel group's sight lines as they were putting on the 1st green, so I ended up being fairly close to the tee box when Yun pulled her drive a little bit left. From my angle, I couldn't see what happened to her ball after it entered the right edge of the left treeline, so there was quite a bit of suspense after her playing partners laid up and I sped up the hill, only to find that Yun had gotten a great break--a good lie and a good line to the front-right pin, without even an overhanging branch from the nearby trees to bother her. By the time Salas and Nochta-Martin had played their shots and Yun was ready to hit, I had a front-row seat to the left of the green, and I got to see exactly how aggressive a line she took, skipping her shot just past the pin and ending up near the front-right fringe, just a few feet away from the trap guarding that side of the green and about 10 feet above the pin. Both Nochta-Martin's dad and I were sure she was going to sink that putt for her 4th birdie in a row, but she just misjudged the line for the very careful pace she chose for her birdie try and had to settle for a par.

As the players took the long way to the next tee, I took a short cut to the green of the par-3 12th, a long and challenging uphill hole that features tree trouble all along the right side of the hole and a little valley below and to the right of the elevated green, which is big, firm, sloping, and tricky to read. Anything right is death, as the area near the green kicks everything into the trees and scrub below it, but Yun caught a lucky break when she missed her tee shot badly enough that it didn't reach that drop-off and instead stayed in the light rough about 20 feet short right of the green. Although she had plenty of green to work with, she hadn't had to chip since the 1st 2 holes, when she just missed both opening par 5s in 2, and she was coming off a previous round where she was something like 0-for-6 in those kind of up-and-down attempts, so I was worried for her as she was sizing it up. And lo and behold, she was just the slightest bit tentative on it, leaving herself an 8 footer for her par save, which she just barely missed. Her bogey-free streak had ended at 12 holes (going back to her par on the 18th from the round before) and she was now only -4 with 4 fairly tough and/or tricky holes to go before getting off the hill that gives Drumlins most of its difficulty.

The 13th is a wacky par 5, with a right turn that's uphill and almost perpendicular after a fairly straight downhill drive and is guarded by a line of tall, broad trees that force most players to lay up with a wedge or short iron. Yun, however, hit a perfect drive down the left side of the fairway, leaving herself with an interesting choice. She could go for the green in 2, as she had done successfully the day before, or try to lay up to about a hundred yards out, past and left of the trees blocking her way to the green. Given that she had stayed aggressive all day, sticking with her usual game plan of using a driver on the narrow 11th when probably 90% of the field was choosing to lay up, I thought she'd go for the green in 2, but at the last second she switched to a short iron and seemed to catch it a little heavy, catching a lucky break when it kicked a little left after catching the top of the leftmost and ending up in the right rough, about 130 yards out, from where she made a routine par. One hole down.

The next hole is a short par 4 featuring a chute the players drive out of to a slight dogleg to the right that's guarded by trees that run all along the right side of the fairway and circle around the the back and left side of the green. Many players lay up with a 3-wood or hybrid to give themselves a shot of about 115 to 135 yards from the left side of the leftwards-sloping fairway to the green, which is sharply pitched in the same direction, particularly in its front half. But many others take a driver down the right side of the fairway and try to get within 75 yards or closer to the green. Yun, of course, is in the latter camp, but this time she pulled her drive and it took her 1st unlucky kick of the day, bounding through the fairway left and over some knolls that separate it from the 15th teeing area. From my vantage point in the right woods overlooking the fairway, I assumed the ball had kicked far anough down the knolls to catch the cart path or end up on one of the tees, but when I got to it I was amazed to see it had been slowed down by wood chips surrounding a set of ornamental little trees that were placed behind a cute little flower arrangement, coming to rest near the trunk of one of them--and while the flowers were marked for a free drop, the trees weren't. Although Yun had an easy path to punch back into the fairway and give herself a 50-yard pitch to a front-left pin that most shots would funnel right down to--the trees were planted in rows that encouraged players to take their medicine in exactly that way--she saw a way to attack the green and went for it. Unfortunately, she caught a tree trunk and kicked backwards, downhill, and to the left onto one of the tee boxes. From there, it seemed to me that she both rushed and fluffed her pitch, catching some overhanging branches guarding the green from that angle on the way down and being fortunate to kick a little right into heavy rough short left of the green rather than left into jail. Then she got too cute with her next shot and left it on the fringe still short of the pin. Even though she almost saved a miracle bogey--her putt was right on line, but hit the hole a little too hard and spun out to the right--I was left shaking my head and her mom was left fuming as she moved to the 15th tee.

But before I take you there I should mention what it was that Salas did on the 14th green. Keep in mind that she was E on her round, had just missed a great birdie chance on the previous hole, and had played the 14th in textbook fashion while her partners were dealing out all kinds of drama (remember that Nochta-Martin was robbed of a chip-in birdie on precisely this hole!). But as Yun was trying to keep her composure after leaving her recovery shot from the left rough on the fringe and figure out how to get her ball in the hole, Salas asked her if she wanted her to putt first. From my vantage point, it looked like Salas's putt--a 10-foot downhill-sidehiller for birdie--was shorter than Yun's. Although I didn't have a good angle to see exactly how long Yun's putt really was, going by the fact that she was still off the green and that Salas volunteered to putt before her, I'm going with my hunch at the time that Salas really did want to give Yun a little extra time to size up her bogey putt. As it was, both players missed, but it seemed like a very nice gesture at the time and still seems that way as I write this.

OK, back to 15, which was the site of Yun's great par save from the right trees on Saturday and Salas's on Sunday. Would Yun, now only -2 and reeling after going +3 in her previous 3 holes, be able to right the ship on the toughest hole on the course? The 15th is a long par-4 whose 2-tier fairway pinches at exactly the place you'd like your drive to end up, with trees on the left and a cliff on the right (literally--there's a chain-link fence all the way down the right side of the upper tier of the fairway to keep you from looking for balls that go into the trees that guard it!). Oh, and the lower-tier fairway kicks everything left, so that it's very easy for even a good drive to get blocked by those trees that infringe on the fairway just as it angles up to a hill just high enough to make your approach shot a blind one to a big, inverted-bowl-style green that pitches sharply from right to left and is guarded by trees to its left and rear. But you can't blame the fairway's slope for where Yun's drive--her 3rd pull in the previous 4 driving holes--ended up, inches away from a tree trunk and completely blocked. I couldn't bear to watch her try to extricate herself from that trap and headed up the left treeline toward the green to watch the players' approach shots from atop the hill, so I only found out after the round from her dad/caddie that she had to play her chip-out lefty. I saw her hit a nice iron to the middle of the green, 20 feet away from the pin at least, but safe. So of course she steps up and sinks her par putt!

The last really dangerous hole on the course is the 16th, a par 3 that follows the 15th's cliff all the way down to a tiny elevated green guarded by a fairly deep front-right bunker. With their shots at the mercy of the winds that always seem to be swirling in this part of the course--and were up by the time we got there near noon, a real factor for virtually the 1st time that day--most players end up short of the green or in the trap. But Yun took an aggressive line and flew her tee shot right over the flagstick, and even got a little unlucky that the ball didn't spin back a little toward the hole. From behind where it stayed, it looked like a pretty straight putt, but as you circled it you could see that it was actually severely downhill and sloped sharply from right to left. Despite playing a lag as she needed to, Yun hit her only bad putt of the day, a big breaker that she just caught slightly too hard for the line she chose and which ran out 6 feet past the cup, and just as on the previous par 3, she couldn't get the par save to drop.

Normally on 17 I like to speed up the rough on its right side (and to the left of the 2nd fairway) to play forecaddie on players' drives. It's not like there's a lot of trouble on the short, uphill par 4 to an elevated green, but if players lose their drives a little to the right (say, because they're protecting against ending up in the scrub and trees on the hill to the left that starts rising sharply about even with the players' preferred landing area, or because they didn't take the left-to-right slope of the right side of the fairway enough into account), there are some tall pine trees that they can end up behind or under and the rough is actually pretty heavy past them and to their left. But once again, not wanting to disturb the putts of the Kim/Kaneko/Beisiegel group on the 7th green (and wanting to watch the drives of the Mo Martin, Allison Hanna, and Yu-Ling Hsieh from the 2nd tee), I hung back and as a result couldn't see exactly where Yun's drive, which was heading right near those big pines, ended up. But just as on 11, Yun caught a good break, as her drive carried over and just left of the leftmost tree and bounced 10 yards past the trees to its right instead of kicking into them. Although her ball was sitting down in the rough, at least the grass wasn't that high or that thick around it. So although this was the 1st time I hadn't seen her in the fairway on this hole, I wasn't too worried for her on the approach, which is pretty funny in retrospect as I hadn't ever seen her hit a good shot into this green even from the fairway. Instead of her usual miss short of the green, however, she put a great swing on the ball and gave herself a good birdie chance, which she missed.

So Yun was still -1 heading into the final hole, tied with Salas after their 2-shot swing on the 16th and Salas's missed birdie putt on 17 as well. Once again, Yun was the longest in the group off the tee, but ended up on the right side of the fairway instead of her usual spot in the left fairway or rough. With the pin tucked back right, she took an aggressive line just to its left and was able to spin it enough to keep it from running off the back of the green--and then calmly sank the 15-foot birdie putt for a roller-coaster 37 on the back. Her 69 moved her into the top 25, a good enough finish for her to stay at #40 on the money list, over $50K behind the Alliance Bank winner and money-list leader Kathleen Ekey (who had a pretty dramatic finish to her own final round after building up an insurmountable lead earlier in the day) but only just over $20K out of 5th place and more than halfway to 20th with only 4 tournaments left to play in the '11 FT season.

That video lesson Yun had with her coach in San Diego after her interview with imoto, onechan, and me Saturday evening must have worked well, as Yun's distance control was much improved by Sunday morning. I was interested in her view on when she felt herself slipping out of the zone and what she did about it. So after the round I ran my own theory by her that the adrenaline rush of pulling her drive on 11 and not knowing where it was for several minutes left her a little shaken and introduced an element of doubt about her swing, but her reply surprised me. She told me that making the long birdie putt on 10 when she didn't expect to scared her and she sped up her routine, getting out of rhythm for the next several holes. When I asked her about her decision on 14 to try to pull off the miracle recovery shot rather than just take her medicine and give herself a chance for par like she did on 15, she insisted that she'd do the same thing all over again because she was so far down the leaderboard and had nothing to lose. The only thing she'd do different was align herself better. Thanks in part to that amazing par on 15 and great birdie on 18, she was in a great mood and could keep that +4 stretch in that 5-hole stretch in perspective, rather than be kicking herself for letting a great round slip away.

Having done just that and much worse myself quite recently--shooting a 77 my 1st time at Harvest Hill despite going -3 over my 1st 12 holes--and having found it impossible to put 18 good holes together all year, I have a lot of sympathy for Yun's back-9 struggles. It was only in the 2 lowest rounds of my life--a 66 around this time 9 years ago and a 68 the August before on The Easiest Course in the World--that I've made about as many birdies early in my round and hung on for strong finishes, so I know full well how hard it is to stay in the zone and deal with having fallen out of it. But my perspective, then and now, is that Yun did more than speed up her rhythm on the back 9. I think she made some bad decisions, as well. I don't question her choice to stick with her usual game plan on the 11th and play it aggressively off the tee. I'd never seen her get in trouble with it before and there was no reason to back off after hitting her 1st 10 greens in regulation and having legitimate birdie chances on every one of those holes. And I don't fault her playing her chip on the 12th a little bit safe. Clearly, that part of her game, particularly out of the rough, is her only glaring weakness, but slightly misjudging a chip is not a strategic error. I think those kinds of mistakes came in playing it too safe on the par-5 13th and exposing herself to too much risk off the tee on the 14th and 15th. A great 2nd shot on the par-5 could have restored some confidence in her swing that must have been shaken a bit by her pull on 11 and push on 12, but if she was going to play it safe there she should have done the same on the next 2 holes by hitting a hybrid off the tee and staying short of their worst trouble--the only places that could derail her the rest of her round. Sure, her driver is clearly her favorite club in the bag, but the key that day was to get on the green as soon as possible and let her putter do its magic from however close or far she could get to the pin from a little further back in the fairway than she's used to. As it was, she hit 15 of 18 greens, but narrowly missed 2 disasters in a row in her last 2 missed greens. That said, she could have saved at least a stroke simply by doing on 14 what she did on 15--just chipped back into safety after putting her drive in jail.

But I think a big part of the reason she didn't do that was her lingering doubts over her distance control from 125 yards and in. For someone who's added so much distance in so short a time, those less-than-full wedges are particularly difficult shots to pull off. I wonder if a back-of-the-mind worry over messing up a relatively easy prospective 3rd shot contributed to her decision to attempt a near-impossible 2nd one. As it was, she gave herself 2 very difficult shots with exactly the club she had the least confidence in that week. I'm not sure whether this theory is right--much less my one at the time that she simply gave too much credence to the feeling of invulnerability that goes with being 19 and playing great golf for the 1st time in a long time--but the fact that she took a huge risk just to give herself an outside chance at her 6th birdie of the day is incontrovertible. What it suggests to me is that she was, in effect, trying to force herself back into the zone rather than accepting that that feeling of perfect flow was gone and doing the best with what she had left--an amazing touch on the greens.

Last year in Pennsylvania, Yun was bit by a tick and her reaction to the precautionary antibiotics she was taking to ward off Lyme Disease led her to withdraw from that event and not enter another one for the rest of the '10 season. In fact, it sparked a crisis of confidence and motivation that I'll let her explain in her own words from her interview with me that I'll try to post tonight or tomorrow. After her 2nd round Saturday, Yun and her family had been mulling over pulling the plug on her '11 FT season in order to work on her 125 yards and in game, particularly her distance control on her full swings and pitches, so as to be prepared for the 2nd stage of LPGA Q-School in late September. But she's on the field list for this year's Pennsylvania Classic, paired tomorrow with struggling veterans Briana Vega and Libby Smith, so I suspect she's hungry to get feedback under tournament pressure on her practice in those areas. The good news is, she's knows exactly what she needs to be working on to get even better results.

Meanwhile, Nochta-Martin is resting her injured knee and will need some great finishes in her last 3 events to move up from 69th place on the money list. Salas, at 44th on the money list in half as many FT starts as Yun, plays with Annie Brophy and long-hitting Lisa Ferrero, who couldn't chase Ekey down last week and stayed 2nd on the money list despite having 2 FT wins this season like her. She'll need to work on her focus and consistency to earn enough to avoid the 2nd stage of LPGA Q-School. Every part of her game seems strong to me: she's very accurate off the tee with at least average length; she's very good with her irons (with her only typical miss being a shot that slips off the clubface slightly to the right); she's got great touch around the greens; and she has all the tools to be a great putter. If it weren't for one missed tap-in and one really bad swing on an approach shot, she would have been hanging right with Hannah on the front and may have been able to sink a few more putts on the back than she ended up doing if she were a bit more excited about her round.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Yun, Salas, and of course Tiffany Joh do this week in Harrisburg. I wish them all the best!

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