Neuhauser starts second Symetra season strong

Whitney Neuhauser during the 2008 U. S. Women's Amateur Championship.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. – Whitney Neuhauser had just made double bogey on her 16th hole of the day, missed the next green, then gotten up and down for par. But standing on the ninth tee box at Lake Region Yacht and Country Club, her final hole, she turned and gave a rules official a giant smile.

“Ladies, how’s it going?” the man asked.

“Fabulous!” Neuhauser nearly shouted.

It’s classic “Rookie,” to use the name that 15 or so fellow Symetra players still call Neuhauser even though she’s in her second season on the developmental tour. The 23-year-old seemingly knows everybody, speaks to everybody and after a first-round 68 at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, had an even bigger smile than usual.

“That was my nickname last year because I’m kind of all over the place and I have a tendency of forgetting things,” Neuhauser said. “Unfortunately that still stuck this year.”

Neuhauser is exactly what you might picture a rookie to be: eager for everything, and learning at every opportunity. She earned her reputation during her days on the Virginia roster because to head coach Kim Lewellen, Neuhauser was a little bit of a pain in the, well, rear. It’s how she got the original nickname, PITA.

Neuhauser forgot most of the necessary items at some point or another during college – socks, contact lenses, golf clubs – but never has missed a tee time.

“I’ve gotten better now that I’m out on my own,” she insists.

The petite Neuhauser was somewhat difficult to corral at the end of a round that gave her the clubhouse lead Friday morning (in the first group to tee off, she set the pace for the day). Of most importance was giving bear hugs to her aunt and uncle standing to the side of the scoring tent – she’s been staying with them in nearby Sarasota – and then the playful smack and, “Way to go, stud,” from fellow player Kendall Dye.

When Neuhauser does relive her seven-birdie round – there were four straight at Nos. 1-4, including a slam dunk from a bunker at No. 2 and a chip-in at No. 3 – it’s with a slight hint of a Southern accent. She grew up in Charlottesville, Va., and when she’s not on the road, still lives there with her parents. She’s proud of a tight bond with fellow ACC players, and lists a handful of travel buddies from the conference.

Neuhauser’s 68 marks the first time she has played Lake Region for a tournament, and it’s a strong start to her second Symetra season. Her best finish in nine 2011 starts was a T-41 at the Alliance Bank Golf Classic.

Neuhauser spent the offseason working on her process. She’s following a new mantra of digging deeper and deeper below par by thinking one shot at a time. Once you get to 1 under, try to get to 2. Once you get to 2, try to get to 3...

It seems to be working.

“That’s kind of what I worked on this offseason is being comfortable under par and just kind of letting myself go,” she said. “It was really nice to come out and actually execute today.”

Even during the regular season, Neuhauser is paying attention all the time. Among last year’s learning curves were the U.S. Women’s Open, where she missed the cut.

“To be out there with the best players in the world - I mean, I got to play a practice round with Michelle Wie and Brittany Lang,” Neuhauser said. “I just kind of tried to soak it all in. I think absolutely it was a confidence boost more than anything.”

A trip to the final stage of LPGA Q-School (she missed the 72-hole cut) and earning status overseas at Ladies' European Tour Q-School (where she learned how to get lost, er, not get lost in Spain) also registered on her year’s highlights. Despite earning her LET card, Neuhauser figures she’ll focus on Symetra Tour events this year.

Being a year older and a year wiser certainly has its perks, even if the rookie tag still sticks.

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