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Kraft Nabisco Championship announces nine amateur invitees

By Ryan Herrington

CI-Emma-Talley-USWomensAm.jpgInvitations to compete at the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship went out to 10 amateurs, with nine confirming their acceptance -- and one declining out of loyalty to her college team.

Tournament director Gabe Codding announced Tuesday that in addition to Alabama sophomore Emma Talley, an automatic invitee based on her victory at the U.S. Women's Amateur last August (shown), fellow college players Alison Lee (UCLA), Ashlan Ramsey (Clemson) and Annie Park (USC) will tee it up in the year's first women's major April 3-6 at Mission Hills C.C. in Rancho Mirage, Calif. They will be joined by top juniors Minjee Lee (the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world), Su Hyun Oh, Angel Yin, Brooke Henderson and Nelly Korda.

Three of the participants (Alison Lee, Ramsey and Yin) have previously played in the Kraft Nabisco. Seven have competed previously in major championships, with only Minjee Lee and Oh making their debuts.

Stanford sophomore Mariah Stackhouse, however, turned down her invitation despite being holding the No. 11 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The Cardinal are schedule to play in the Ping/Arizona State Invitational April 4-6 in Tempe, Ariz., and Stackhouse told Kraft Nabisco officials she intended to compete in in the college event.
 
“By sticking with her team, I have no doubt that with the character Mariah displayed here that we’ll be seeing her here very soon,” Codding said.



Photo: AP Images
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News & Tours

Lydia Ko, 15, wins U.S. Women's Amateur

By Brendan Mohler

CLEVELAND -- Lydia Ko is this year's U.S. Women's Amateur champion after defeating Jaye Marie Green of Boca Raton 3 and 1 in today's 36-hole final at The Country Club. The 15-year-old New Zealander is the second youngest winner in the 112-year history of the event, next to Kimberly Kim who won in 2006.

"It feels great to live up to the expectations," said Ko, who is the top-ranked amateur in the world and only further asserted her status this week. "There's a lot of pressure on the world's top amateur."

Ko took a 1-up lead to the afternoon round against Green, who struggled to convert several birdie chances in both the morning and afternoon rounds. "Lydia doesn't give you anything," said Green, who heads to Q school this fall. "I knew I had to make a lot of birdies, I just didn't get the putts to fall when I needed."

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Ko stretched her lead to 4 up at the turn of the afternoon 18 and closed out the victory with a 17th-hole par, despite stumbling slightly down the stretch. Green, who was 3 down with three holes remaining, birdied the par-5 17th to continue the match, but was unable to make a much-needed birdie on 17 with Ko on the green in regulation.

"I got a little nervous at the end, but some pep talks helped," said Ko, whose mother and caddy helped to keep her calm. "It was a good match. Jaye is a really strong player."

The victory is Ko's first in the United States and comes close to the end of her highly successful summer-long stay here. She reached the semifinals of the US Girls' Junior, earned low-amateur honors at the US Open, and has now claimed the top amateur prize in golf. Ko has an exemption to play in the Canadian Open later this month, after which she'll head to Korea, her birthplace.

Ko plans to keep her amateur status and eventually attend college, wishing to take a different route than her role models Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson. "There are so many people in New Zealand who go to college overseas, I think that kind of inspired me," said Ko. "There are so many things to learn as an amateur."

The victory boosts Ko's already impressive resume and gives her added confidence going into the Canadian Open, knowing she has beaten the world's best amateurs. She's already won a professional event, but that doesn't diminish the value of her victory this week.

"Winning a professional event is amazing. But to me as an amateur, this tournament is much more meaningful."

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News & Tours

Ko and Green to face off in U.S. Women's Amateur finale

By Brendan Mohler

The world’s top-ranked amateur, Lydia Ko, will face Jaye Marie Green of Boca Raton Fla., tomorrow morning in the 36-hole match play final for the U.S. Women’s Amateur trophy. In wet and windy conditions that lengthened the course, Ko defeated second-ranked amateur, Ariya Jutanugarn, while Green knocked off Canada’s Nicole Zhang, 2 up.

“I am really blessed to be here. This feels like a dream,” said Green after Zhang conceded the match on the 18th green after failing to make birdie and force a playoff. “It’s been a really long week, I’m not even sure how long. But I’m really excited for tomorrow.”

Green will have a tough opponent in Lydia Ko, who finished 17 holes today at three-under par, including birdies on her final three holes that buried Jutanugarn. “Ariya had a really good day, she put the pressure on me,” said Ko, who made the cut at this year’s US Women’s Open. “My putting was better today than the last few days. I was able to convert my birdie chances.”

Related: Semifinal matches set at U.S. Women's Amateur

Ko took the lead with a birdie on the 4th hole and never gave it up. The match was always close with Ko never having more than a 1-up advantage until the final three holes. With Jutanagarn only three feet from the hole for birdie on the par-4 15th, Ko chipped in from about 50 feet to halve the hole and remain 1 up. She then two-putted for birdie on the par-5 16th and won the 17th to end the match with a conceded birdie. The long-hitting Jutanugarn played solid golf in tough conditions, but never had a realistic chance against Ko’s seven birdies.

“These conditions are more like New Zealand. I’m used to cold, wet, and rainy,” said Ko, who was born in South Korea but recently became a Kiwi after completing the citizenship process. “It’s my advantage to play in this weather.” Ko also said that she does not enjoy playing in the American summer heat.

Jaye Marie Green hardly missed a shot in her match and finished the day with five birdies, including a concession at the last. “The conditions were tough today and the course played different than earlier this week,” said a smiling Green, who was constantly putting on and taking off her rain gear during the match. “I’m just happy I didn’t chunk it off the first tee,” she added with a laugh.

Her father and caddy, Donnie Green, expressed his pride with the way his daughter handled herself in the difficult weather. “She relied on her routine and didn’t change it,” he said. “She was fully committed to every shot. I try not to get too involved out there.”

Related: Zhang upsets top-seeded Kim

Green made a crucial up-and-down par save to preserve her 2-up lead at the par-3 14th hole after Zhang hit her approach within ten feet. Green was well right of the putting surface but chipped over a bunker to within 5 feet and sank the putt for a halve after Zhang missed her birdie try. On the par-5 16th, Green’s drive found a fairway bunker, forcing her to lay up while Zhang hit the green in two and eventually won the hole with a birdie. After pars halved the 17th, Green won the 18th when Zhang’s chip for birdie ran well past the hole. Zhang then conceded the match.

Green and Ko have never played together before, but are each aware of the other’s capabilities. “Lydia is number one in the world, so obviously she’s good,” said Green. “I’m just happy to have this opportunity.”

“Jaye’s a really good player,” said Ko. “It’s important for me to get off to a good start and not get too tired.”

Stamina will be crucial in tomorrow’s 36-hole final. The match will begin at 8:30 am with Golf Channel coverage starting at 3:00 pm Eastern.

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News & Tours

Semifinal matches set at U.S. Women's Amateur

By Brendan Mohler

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- After a morning of thunderstorms and an afternoon of birdies, the semifinalists are set at the U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club. Twenty-year-old Nicole Zhang, who took down top-seeded Hyo-Joo Kim yesterday, harnessed the momentum and used four back-nine birdies, including two on the 16th and 17th holes, to defeat Su-Hyun Oh of Australia 2-and-1.

“I just pushed myself as far as I go, tried to focus so hard,” said Zhang. “It was a long day after the rain delays this morning, but I stuck to my normal game plan and stayed focused.”

In the first semifinal match tomorrow morning, Zhang will face Jaye Marie Green, 18, of Boca Raton, Fla., who defeated Mexico’s Marijosse Navarro also with birdies on 16 and 17. Green’s drive on 17 came to rest in a large divot, yet she was able to hack it out to about ten feet, and eventually drained the putt to close out the match.

“I felt I was putting well all day, they just weren’t going in until the last few holes,” said a relieved and excited Green after the victory. Green said she has become friends with Zhang this week, but once tomorrow’s match starts, it’s all business. “I usually don’t talk to my opponents. Not because I’m mean, just because it’s hard to be friendly with someone you’re trying to beat.”

Related: Zhang upsets top-seeded Kim

In tomorrow’s other semifinal match, 15-year-old and world’s top-ranked amateur, Lydia Ko, will face Ariya Jutanugarn, the 2011 Girls’ Junior champion who also defended her Junior PGA Championship title last week. Ko defeated Paula Reto of South Africa 3-and-1 without playing her best golf.

“I didn’t have my A game today. I wanted more birdie opportunities,” said Lydia, who still finished 16 holes at one-under par. “My long game was strong, but I’ll need to putt better tomorrow to beat Ariya.”

All of today’s matches were fairly close, with the exception of Ariya Jutanugarn’s, who won 5-and-4 against UCLA’s Erynne Lee. “I didn’t play my best,” said Ariya, despite the lobsided win. “She [Erynne] played great in every match until today. I was lucky.” Ariya’s older sister, Moriya, has caddied for her this week since losing her first round match to Amy Anderson.

Although not all the semifinalists felt they played as well as they could have today, par was rarely good enough to win a hole and several holes were halved with birdies. The course was again softened by morning rain allowing the players to attack the pins, which have been getting tougher as the matches continue. If rain continues like the forecast predicts, it will take numerous birdies to advance to Sunday’s 36-hole final.

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News & Tours

Zhang upsets top-seeded Kim at U.S. Women's Amateur

By Brendan Mohler

CLEVELAND -- Nicole Zhang of Canada squeezed out a 1-up victory over Hyo-Joo Kim, the medalist and 3rd-ranked female amateur in the world, during the round of 16 at the U.S. Women's Amateur. The 20-year-old made two birdies and took the lead on the 13th hole, then cruised to the finish with five straight pars to close out the win.

"I learned today that I can play under pressure," said the soon-to-be Northwestern student, who is transferring from Notre Dame. "I received some great advice from Ellen Port in a practice round. She told me to simply play my own game, stay focused." Port, a four-time US Women's Mid-Amateur champion, failed to qualify for match play.

Zhang stuck to her game plan in this afternoon's match. She was unfazed by the hype surrounding Kim after her eight-under qualifying score and 7-and-6 victory in the first round. Zhang hit fairways and greens down the stretch, forcing Kim to make a move that never materialized after missed birdie putts on the 15th, 16th, and 17th holes ended her chances of survival. With a 1-up lead on the par-4 18th, Zhang stuck her approach to 5 feet, virtually sealing the match with Kim about 30 feet from the cup. After Kim missed, Zhang lagged her birdie putt to within inches of the cup and tapped in for par to complete the upset.

"This was the first time in awhile I wasn't nervous. I felt great," said Zhang, who recently started doing yoga, which she praised for its ability to calm her nerves. "I'm used to being nervous in situations like that, but I wasn't today."

Zhang's aggressive game plan paid off immensely, even though she was only able to convert two birdies during the match. "I went out there and tried to birdie every hole. I wanted to put the pressure on her [Kim]." Though she was never more than 1 down, Kim's body language on the back nine, particularly after a few missed putts, revealed that Zhang's game plan had worked.

Zhang will have tough company in tomorrow afternoon's quarterfinal match. Her opponent is Australia's Su-Hyun Oh, who beat 2012 GB&I Curtis Cup team member Holly Clyburn, UNC's Maia Schechter, and 2011 Hong Kong Ladies Open Amateur champion Jayvie Marie Agojo, each in decisive victories that did not reach the 17th hole. But after beating the medalist, Zhang, who will try to use the momentum from a big upset to her advantage, isn't worried about her opponents.

"I know I'm just as good as the rest of these girls," she said.

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News & Tours

Close matches result in heartbreak at Women's Amateur

By Brendan Mohler

CLEVELAND -- Golf is a cruel game. This morning’s second round of match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur was full of constant reminders that the game of golf, like any sport for that matter, is often heartbreaking. Many of the players this week have played alongside each other in one of several team tournaments that amateur and collegiate golf offer, providing a bittersweet taste for both the winners and losers this week.

Take the Amy Anderson-Lydia Ko match for example. Yesterday, Amy knocked off Moriya Jutanugarn, last year’s runner-up and a favorite this week, by winning the 17th and 18th holes with a par and a birdie, respectively. Today, Amy’s luck ran out. The 2009 Girls’ Junior champ and a member of this year’s Curtis Cup team made five birdies and only one bogey en route to a 3 and 2 loss to the world’s top-ranked female amateur, Lydia Ko. Ko was seven under through 16 holes today, and didn’t make a bogey despite intermittent rain showers. The match had four lead changes, with neither player holding more than a one-up lead until the final holes.

Related: Hyo-Joo Kim continues impressive play at Women's Amateur

Top-seeded Hyo-Joo Kim, who had made 16 birdies in 48 holes prior to today’s play, seemed to have met her match in Isabelle Lendl this morning. That was until Kim’s putter heated up on the back nine. Lendl still had opportunities down the stretch after a few wayward drives cost Kim chances at birdie, but Lendl was unable to convert makeable birdie putts on 16 and 17, eventually losing 2 and 1 to the medalist.

“I didn’t play bad today,” said Lendl, who handled the defeat with class. “I think I was only one over [par] for the week. Sometimes in match play that’s just the luck of the draw.” Isabelle had her older sister and Florida teammate, Marika, on the bag, while their father and tennis great, Ivan Lendl, closely followed the match from behind the ropes.

Sometimes even par just isn’t good enough, especially in match play on a course recently softened by morning thundershowers after three days of firm, fast play. One player said to her caddy after the round, “We fixed more ball marks today than the past three [days].” With more thunderstorms in the forecast for the weekend, the course will stay soft and likely produce many more red numbers.

With the exception of a few, the matches are getting closer at the Women’s Amateur, meaning more heartbroken, teary-eyed faces walking off the 18th green. Only 16 players currently remain, and by the end of the day the quarterfinalists will be set.

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News & Tours

Hyo-Joo Kim continues impressive play at Women's Amateur

By Brendan Mohler

CLEVELAND -- Hyo-Joo Kim continued her birdie barrage today in her first-round match at the USGA Women's Amateur at The Country Club. The 17-year old Korean quickly defeated Megan Khang of Rockland, MA, 7 and 6 after making five birdies in her first seven holes, then finishing with five par. Prior to match play, Kim claimed medalist honors in the 36-hole qualifying rounds with back-to-back 68s for an eight-under total.

"Putting is my strength right now," said Hyo-Joo through her caddie and translator, Euna Pak. "I really like the greens here." Kim read most of the greens herself, with only minor help from Euna when needed. "I only help when she asks," added Euna, who seemed pleased with how easy her job has been so far.

Kim has made 16 birdies through only 48 holes this week. If her putter stays this hot, her opponents will certainly have a tough time keeping up. Last year, Kim was an alternate at the Women's Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club. Her play since then is proving that her failure to fully qualify last year was simply a minor hiccup in her otherwise impressive career.

Last month, Kim finished T-4 at the Evian Masters, a major in 2013, and slightly ahead of accomplished LPGA veterans like Paula Creamer, Se Ri Pak, and Christy Kerr. Kim fired four rounds in the 60s and finished only three shots back of winner and 2008 U.S. Open champion, Inbee Park, in her attempt to be the first amateur to win an LPGA event in 43 years.

"I love the LPGA events," said Hyo-Joo, who also played in the LPGA LOTTE Championship in Hawaii in April, where she finished T-12. "I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. Evian is a big event that gave me a lot of confidence."

Related: 10-year-old Latanna Stone makes history

With her LPGA finishes, Kim could already be a very rich girl. However, she plans to make her professional debut this October at the LPGA Hannabank Championship in Incheon, Korea, making this week her first and last shot at a title in this event.

Despite her lack of experience with match play, Kim appears likely to still be around this weekend. "This course fits my eye. I really like it here," she said.

Those are scary words for anyone who happens to play the top-seeded Kim this week. Next up is Isabelle Lendl, the 2012 Women's Eastern Amateur champion and daughter of tennis great Ivan Lendl.

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