Fans get close-up of future female stars

Alexis Thompson and Jessica Korda can be found on the Florida Orange Blossom Circuit this winter.

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – The Florida Orange Blossom Circuit is the best kind of laid-back. A spectator dropped his cell phone into a fairway bunker at the South Atlantic Amateur on Jan. 14 and hardly anyone noticed. Fans literally walk the fairways of these women’s amateur events for an up-close-and-personal view of the LPGA’s next generation of stars. Cristie Kerr, Grace Park, Natalie Gulbis, Christina Kim, Beth Bauer, Paula Creamer and sisters Aree and Naree Song are just a sampling of the heavy-hitters to come through Ormond Beach.

This year’s must-see pairing of Round 1 featured three juniors: Alexis Thompson (14), Jessica Korda (16) and Alex Stewart (17).

“The girl on the left (Stewart), she’s got the most pressure,” one fan observed to another. “She’s dealing with someone who is somewhat famous.”

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Alexis Thompson bundled up for the final round of the Harder Hall.

“Somewhat famous” seems to be an accurate description of Thompson. She gained a fair amount of publicity in 2007 by becoming the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, at age 12. Since then, Thompson has made giant strides in her game each year. Astute women’s golf fans know her as Golfweek’s top-ranked amateur and junior, a rare double for a player so young.

Thompson and Korda, two personable blondes with big games, have the potential to move the needle considerably at the next level. They already lead a semi-professional lifestyle, with jam-packed tournament schedules and extensive media exposure.

Thompson won the Sally last year by a record 13 strokes, with a scoring record of 5-under 283. Her ball-striking hasn’t been as sharp in the past few weeks, but she still can win with her “B” game, as seen at the Junior Orange Bowl last month.

“She’s not hitting on eight cylinders now,” said Jim McLean, her swing coach.

“It’s super-boring for good players to sit at home, though. Tournaments are where you get things done.”

Korda comes from athletic stock. Her father, Petr, was a former world-class tennis player. He serves as personal caddie for Jessica. Protective fathers are another fixture at amateur events. They rake bunkers, pace off yardage and keep a keen eye on a sometimes-overzealous gallery.

Korda helped the U.S. win the Copa de las Americas last week in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and she had trouble transitioning to Florida’s unusually cool winter conditions.

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Jessica Korda plays a shot at the 2009 Harder Hall.

“Girls on the tour do this (jet-setting) all the time,” said Korda, who signed up for the Sally to better her chances of making this year’s U.S. Curtis Cup team.

Korda and Thompson have shared the stage at U.S. Women’s Opens. The difference between a Sally pairing and one on golf’s biggest stage?

“The people,” Korda said.

Thousands flocked to catch a glimpse of their pairing at Saucon Valley last summer. On Wednesday afternoon in Ormond Beach, roughly 30 people bundled up to watch the day’s final pairing.

“We lost them after nine,” said Korda, who shot 75. “They didn’t want to see that kind of golf.”

The people – or lack thereof – are what makes a tournament such as the Sally so special. Fans (and media alike) can get to know these rising starlets in a relaxed, intimate setting. With so many of the LPGA’s biggest stars skipping college and winning majors before they can rent a car, Sally fans don’t have to wait long to see their favorite players make it big.

Korda and Thompson planned dinner with their dads after the round – sushi or Olive Garden? The foursome likely will dine together every night this week.

Nothing fancy, just two teens sharing a basket of breadsticks before battling for another amateur title. The charmed life of the “somewhat famous.”

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