ORLANDO, Fla. – Nicole Morales’ eyes light up at the thought of match play. She had that look Tuesday at Bay Hill Golf Club.
The New Yorker with the quick smile and vice-like handshake teamed with Sierra Brooks, a relative match-play rookie from Sorrento, Fla., in the first round of Wyndham Cup matches. They faced the big-name West-Team pairing of Alison Lee and Esther Lee in morning four-balls and maintained a close match.
Morales made birdie at the second hole to give her team an immediate leg up. It was a lead they lost then took back before the turn, but lost again when Esther Lee chipped in for birdie at No. 10. Most of the back nine passed with the West team in favor until Morales and Brooks began a last-ditch comeback effort at the 16th.
Brooks nearly made birdie at No. 16, then holed a 30-footer for birdie at No. 17 that erased the Lees’ 1-up lead. On 18, Brooks put her approach in water right of the green, leaving Morales to finish the job. Morales said the play was all part of the strategy.
“We figured ‘OK, why don’t you try to hit it on the green and then I’ll try to go for it,’ because I had the flatter lie and she had more of a downhill stance,” Morales said. “She had to hit a hybrid so unfortunately her ball went in the water.”
From 139 yards, Morales choked a 9-iron and put her shot 10 feet from the flag. She sunk the putt with authority.
Morales was almost out of breath as she delivered the play by play after the match. The closer she got to the practice green and the first tee, where afternoon foursomes matches already were getting started, the more staccato her story became. She had to tell it in between shrieks and whistles – not just from the mouths of her East teammates, but from hers as well.
“It was a death match of a fight,” she said of the morning.
She likes an environment like that – when Brooks’ dad Brent showed up on the first tee Tuesday morning (the only spectator with that group), Morales turned and told him she’d better hear him cheering. Loudly.
“I love playing in match play and I’m so competitive that I always want to win so it’s a great fit for me,” she said.
Morales is the reigning champion of the Polo Golf Junior Classic – the only match-play tournament on the AJGA schedule and an invitational to boot. It gives her a boost of confidence before she ever sticks a tee in the ground.
Morales arrived at Bay Hill fresh off a trip to the Round of 16 at last week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior. Among the week’s highlights were a 9-and-8 thrashing of first-round opponent Lauren Johnson. She took World No. 1 amateur Lydia Ko to the 17th hole in her last match. Morales, 1 down at the 17th tee, matched birdies there with Ko to lose.
“She was like a dog on your pants that would just not let go,” Ko said later. One assumes it’s a compliment from the New Zealander.
After that match, Morales had the same fire in her eyes she had on Tuesday. She talked not only about the shots, but about what they meant to the match. Morales is a player who thinks her way around the course, which is why match play is such a good fit for her personality.
As for the adrenaline she never quite seemed to lose on Tuesday, chalk that up to the spirit of the Wyndham Cup. Better yet, just always expect fireworks from Morales.