Full Cup

SEBRING, Fla. – The frigid temperatures in Florida kept many players inside the snack shop and off the practice areas following Thursday’s first round of the Harder Hall Invitational. The conversation among some of the nation’s top amateurs moved from hot soup and the day’s scores to Virginia Derby Grimes’ stolen car at the 1995 Southern Amateur and, of course, the upcoming Curtis Cup.

Alison Walshe didn’t want to jinx herself by conceding that she had a very strong chance of getting on the eight-player team. But the Arizona senior has to be a lock. She beat one of the strongest fields in women’s golf this summer over Pinehurst No. 2 to win the North and South and remains one of the nation’s best college players.

Click here for first-round results from the Harder Hall.

Actually, as far as I’m concerned, seven spots might as well be sealed up. Stacy Lewis, Amanda Blumenherst, Walshe, Tiffany Joh, Mina Harigae, Kimberly Kim and Jennie Lee all deserve the chance to compete May 30-June 1 over the Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s that last spot that must be giving USGA committee members a headache.

Anyone left in the running wisely made the trip this week to Sebring. Jacqui Concolino seemed a strong candidate going into the summer but did nothing special. She finished the fall at Vanderbilt ranked 53rd in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and withdrew this week due to illness. That leaves Meghan Bolger (pictured), Mallory Blackwelder and a dark horse, Taylore Karle, on my short list.

(Although i will give a shout-out to Candace Schepperle, who has struggled this fall at Auburn but was runner-up at this event last year, a semifinalist at the Trans National and medalist at the North and South. She’s No. 9 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings.)

None of these players has to win this week to get on the team (though that would be impressive). Beating Lewis, Walshe and Joh always is a tall order. They must beat everyone else vying for that last spot on the team, though.

Bolger might seem a lock to many with her back-to-back U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur titles, but she’s not convinced.

“A lot of people think that way but I don’t,” said Bolger, who is in 12th place after a first-round 78. “You still have to perform throughout the year.”

Bolger played a full schedule of events this season, advancing to the third round of the North and South, qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open and finishing T-13 at the Eastern. Lowlights include losing in the first round of the Southern Amateur and failing to make match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The 29-year-old has had a lot of time to work on her game after her contract was not extended at Ole Miss. Bolger served as head coach at Mississippi for six years but said it was a mutual decision between she and the administration that she step down.

“It was just time for them to go in a new direction and for me to pursue what I’ve always wanted to do … and that’s play golf,” Bolger said.

She’s been without a job since leaving Mississippi last spring and spent the last several months living out of her car at several spots in the Southeast. (Before you feel sorry for her, she’s mostly been at her parents’ home in Pinehurst.) Bolger said she has no desire to go back to coaching, but would like to give LPGA Q-School another shot in the fall. She failed to advance through the first stage last September and didn’t play in the second qualifier because it conflicted with the Mid-Amateur.

While two consecutive USGA titles is always impressive, keep in mind that Mid-Am champs don’t always make the Curtis Cup team. In fact, more often they’re left out. None of the Mid-Am champs between 1999 and ‘05 were named to the subsequent Curtis Cup team. Sure Grimes was on the 2006 team, but that’s largely because she won The Sally that year. Not because she finished runner-up at the ’04 Mid-Am.

Does winning the Mid-Am earn a spot on the team?

“No,” Grimes said without hesitation. “You’ve got to get out and play in tournaments with the youngsters.”

There’s no doubt that Bolger beefed up her schedule this year. Advancing to the third round at Pinehurst is good, but now is the perfect time to prove she can hang with players she once coached against.

Speaking of youngsters, let’s look at Blackwelder’s credentials. The Florida-turned-Kentucky player struggled to an 83 this morning. She needs to pick things up to make her case after an injury slowed her down last fall.

Blackwelder definitely showed her match-play moxie this summer with a victory at the Women’s Western Amateur and a runner-up finish at the Trans National. There’s no doubt these two fields were watered down compared to most years, but they certainly rival the competition Bolger sees at the Mid-Am. Blackwelder, No. 3 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings, also advanced to the second round of the Women’s Amateur.

As for Karle, well, consider her a late contender. She’s the only player in the Harder Hall field ranked inside the top 30 in college golf who isn’t already a lock for the team. The Pepperdine freshman finished the fall ranked 22nd and shared last week’s Silver Belle title with UCLA frosh Glory Yang, beating Kimberly Kim in the process.

Karle qualified for the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open and made the cut at the LPGA’s Safeway International last March. Like Bolger, she advanced to the third round at the North and South and lost in the first round of the Women’s Am. Karle might not have a USGA title, but she does own the record for stroke-play qualifying at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, shooting 130 (63-67) in 2005. She was also a member of the victorious 2005 Junior Solheim Cup team. In terms of raw talent, it’s easily Karle over Bolger.

But for Karle to be considered, she must give Lewis and Co. a run this week while edging out both Blackwelder and Bolger. Karle couldn’t have asked for a much better start to this week; she’s in third after a first-round 74.

Here’s something else the USGA committee should keep in mind: Karle and Blackwelder will be playing all spring. After Bolger finishes up the Florida swing this month, amateur tournaments effectively end until the summer. If Karle guides Pepperdine to another NCAA Championship appearance, she’ll be joining most of the Curtis Cup team in New Mexico before heading to Scotland.

The committee is scheduled to meet after The Sally to determine the team. Bolger will keep on playing in Ormond Beach while many of the college players head back to class. This is the week that should carry the most clout as it will be the strongest field.

Bolger does have one more thing to motivate her: She’ll be turning 30 on Day 1 of the Curtis Cup. Can’t think of a better place to celebrate than the Home of Golf.

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