SEBRING, Fla. – Kyle Roig dropped an 18-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to put the 55th Harder Hall Invitational out of its misery.
The weather in so-called sunny Florida was so wretched, this reporter’s car temperature gauge simply read “Ice” at day’s end.
Jay Marie Green, a native of Boca Raton, Fla., pulled out after nine holes Jan. 9 because her frozen, swollen hands caused so much pain. The first two rounds of the Harder Hall were delayed due to frost-covered fairways. On Saturday, the temperature hovered around freezing all afternoon, with wind and rain making it almost unbearable.
Yet after 72 holes, two South Florida teens were knotted atop the leaderboard at even-par 72. Sixteen-year-old Roig (75) squared off against good friend Alexis Thompson, 14, who carded the day’s lowest round of 74. The pair grew up practicing together after Roig moved from her native Puerto Rico.
“When (Alexis) hit 12 she started winning everything and now everyone knows her,” Roig said. “I knew I had to make a birdie putt to win.”
Roig thought she’d be in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this week representing Puerto Rico in the Copa de las Americas. Financial constraints, however, kept Puerto Rico from sending a team, so Roig contacted Harder Hall chairwoman Carol Semple Thompson two days before the event to see if she could get on a waiting list. She opened with a 2-under 70 and never looked back.
“It was just like a replay,” said Thompson, who remembers clearly when Roig chipped in for eagle several years ago to keep her from qualifying for the Westfield Junior.
Thompson, Golfweek’s No. 1 amateur and junior, is in the midst of a five-week stretch, going 1-2-2 the first three weeks. The hottest player in the field, Thompson was the only player under par through nine holes.
Roig called a penalty on herself on the par-5 sixth hole when she accidentally moved the ball a half-inch with her putter.
“Nobody saw it so I had to call it,” said Roig, who had a 10-footer for birdie. Instead she made bogey, and proceeded to bogey Nos. 8-9 as well.
“I couldn’t feel my hands,” she said.
Roig managed to stay within one shot of Thompson for much of the back nine. Thompson, playing in the group ahead of Roig, pulled away on the 17th with a 12-foot birdie putt that paled in comparison to the gutsy shot of Pepperdine’s Taylore Karle.
Down two strokes to Thompson with two to play, Karle went for the par-5 in two. The fact that her ball found the water hazard didn’t deter Karle from stripping down to her bare feet. She calmly walked into the hazard and splashed her third shot to 10 feet. She missed the putt and ultimately finished fourth.
“The water actually was warmer, but that could just be because my feet were frozen,” Karle said. “After about a minute I knew I had to get out of there.”
As Thompson moved to the last hole, Roig piped her second shot to the par-5 17th, landing pin-high in the second cut of rough. She dropped to the ground when her ball stopped 1 inch short of the hole. The birdie put her within one shot of Thompson.
On the 18th, Thompson’s approach shot hit a tree and then plugged in the greenside bunker. Figuring she had to choose between leaving it in the bunker and thinning it over, Thompson purposefully went long thinking she’d have an easier chip coming back. She made bogey from there to finish even par for the tournament.
Roig, No. 27 in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, found herself in the same bunker on the 18th only her lie was decent. She hit to 3 feet and sunk the putt thinking she’d finished second. It wasn’t until she spotted Thompson in the crowd around 18 that she realized she might have a chance.
“I’m in a playoff,” Thompson told Roig as she left the green.
“With who?” Roig replied.
“You,” Thompson said.
Thompson popped up her tee shot on the first playoff hole and burned the edge with her 25-foot birdie attempt. Roig mercifully ended the tournament with a birdie before frostbite or darkness set in.
Roig remembers the look on Thompson’s face when she chipped in at the Westfield qualifier and makes a habit of reminding her old slumber party friend.
Now she has new ammunition to use against Thompson, though it remains a lopsided affair.
“I had to win one because she’s won so many,” Roig said.
Thompson, by the way, went on to become the youngest to win the Westfield at age 12.