REUNION, Fla. – Samantha Wagner dropped a sixth and final birdie putt at No. 18, then stepped off the green to bear hugs from her mother and father. Her expression hardly changed from the playful grin she has carried all week.
There was a point Saturday when Wagner’s Twitter handle, @SamWagner66, was in jeopardy. Replace a sandy bogey at the reachable par-5 17th with another birdie, and co-leader Wagner would have beaten her career-best 66 by one. Replace it with a par, even, and it becomes her first bogey-free, under-par round.
Still, the second-round 67 helped Wagner climb from T-15 to a share of the lead with Alison Lee. Both are at 2-under 142.
As the red numbers piled up on her scorecard, Wagner, an already swift player, began to quicken her pace around Reunion’s Watson Course. She would pour in a birdie putt on one hole, then march to the next tee with authority and boom another drive down the middle of the fairway. She didn’t know how it was all adding up until stepping out of the scoring tent to news that she was tied for the lead.
“It feels really good,” Wagner said. “I’ve been playing well. I’ve been getting ready for this tournament for about a month now and was really excited.”
Wagner’s brief disappointment over the bogey at No. 17 shows just how committed to the game Wagner has become. Formerly a student at Windermere Prep just down the road, Wagner transferred last fall to Florida Virtual School. The former defender on the Windermere soccer team also traded in her cleats this year, fearing an injury from the rough sport might sideline her from the course. She’ll accelerate her high school curriculum so that she can graduate a year early, in 2014. The painted-orange fingernails and Florida Gators plastered on her golf shoes leave no secret as to where Wagner wants to go.
In addition to sheer determination, consider this, also, about Wagner when it comes to conversations about toughness. In blustery first-round conditions that left opponents adding every layer they could find, Wagner strutted the course in a golf skirt and light jacket. She hardly seemed to notice the chill.
“I’m from Pennsylvania,” she said with a shrug.
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The last time this reporter saw Alison Lee, she was walking dejectedly away from the scoring tent after struggling through two rounds of stroke-play qualifying at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Lee, fed up with her game and a strange hesitation she was feeling at impact, was ready for time off.
“Whenever I set up at the tee box, I’d be scared to hit it,” Lee said of those dark days. “Every time I would think about going on the tee box, it’s just a nightmare.”
Even Lee’s posture seemed better Saturday as she shot a second consecutive 71. She spoke of renewed confidence following a short break from the game and then a U.S. team win at the Junior Solheim Cup in Ireland. However, the posture thing might be deceiving for an already tall and lanky player who added noticeable inches over the past year. It’s possible that’s what added to the swing glitches Lee experienced last summer.
“Over the winter break, I tried as hard as I could to get that out of my mind,” she said.
She also began work with Don Brown, who also teaches the PGA Tour’s Kevin Na and formerly taught the LPGA’s Angela Park, shortly before the Junior Solheim, and it has made all the difference – especially as Lee chases her first invitational title. Five years after playing her first AJGA event, Lee, who turns 17 next month, feels like that title is overdue.
“I’ve had so many chances to win,” she said. “… Winning this tournament would mean so much.”
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There’s one player in every class, it seems, that attracts a never-ending parade of college coaches when heavily-recruited events rolls around. For the Class of 2013, that player is Casey Danielson.
A year ago, the Osceola, Wis., native easily blended into the scenery. That was before a season during which she finished in the top 10 in three AJGA invitationals, beginning with a T-6 at last year’s Annika.
“I was so ecstatic about that,” Danielson said. A third-place finish at the Junior PGA and a trip to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Women’s Amateur followed.
A pair of 76s left the 16-year-old in a tie for 30th place Saturday on the Annika leaderboard, but other areas of growth are vast. Danielson began the week addressing media as an AJGA player representative. It’s one of those out-of-her-comfort-zone experiences that has helped Danielson get over childhood shyness.
“There’s so many good opportunities out there, I have to take them,” she said.
Though still undecided on college, Danielson so far has taken unofficial visits to Florida, Wisconsin, UCLA, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Arizona.
“I’ve met some great people,” said Danielsion, a freckled, ivory-skinned blonde who clearly realizes there are benefits to be had from moving south.
“I’d really like to get out of the cold.”
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Short shots: In the fourth playing of the Annika Invitational, two past champions are in the field (2010 winner Victoria Tanco earned her LPGA card at Q-School in December). Simin Feng, the 2009 champion, and Celine Boutier, the defending champion, are tied for 16th at 6-over 150. . . . Sierra Sims, a 16-year-old from Austin, Texas, also shot 5-under 67 on Saturday. She moved from T-55 after a first-round 81 to T-7.