FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Nicole Morales was bothered Thursday afternoon when she realized she might have confused the names of Sycamore Hills head pro Tim Frazier’s three daughters. It might have been Sarah who walked all 18 with Morales and opponent Bethany Wu in the second round of match play. Or was it Claire? Amy?
Morales is like this. She will befriend an entire tournament by week’s end, and she will remember names. Of course, people remember her, too. Morales is the one with the smooth swing and the handshake that nearly drops you to your knees. Her host family from last year’s Junior PGA Championship, played at Sycamore Hills, showed up Thursday to cheer her on – and Morales signed the big picture of her that the four children (Brandon, Adam, Tyler and Katie, if you were wondering) brought to the golf course.
“I think one of the members was crying before I was when I lost,” Morales said of the tight match she played against Wu. Morales lipped out a par putt at No. 18 to lose to Wu, 1 up.
In the last match of the morning, Wu and Morales combined for 10 birdies. Neither player ever got more than 1 up. Wu, ranked No. 11 by Golfweek, knew Morales, No. 2, would make a fierce opponent when she saw the draw Wednesday afternoon.
Wu’s defining moments came at No. 15, when she fought out a birdie from deep rough near the green, and again at No. 17, where she birdied to bring the match back to all square. Her two-putt from the back of No. 18 to a front pin gave her a pass into the next round, where she’ll meet Samantha Wagner, Golfweek’s No. 17-ranked junior.
“I felt like it was just a putting contest the entire time,” Wu said hurriedly after the match, as she prepared to do it all again in the afternoon.
Morales repeated almost that exact phrase a few minutes later beside the scoreboard, after she had posed for pictures with a handful of members, fans and followers: “I didn’t think it was going to come down to a putting contest, but it did.”
By this time next year, Morales will be too old to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior, so part of her career ends here. It was important to Morales that she never gave up Thursday, and she repeated that phrase with confidence several times post-round.
Neither player said they felt like they ever had the momentum on their side during the match. They turned at all square, and Wu took a lead at No. 10 off of Morales’ first bogey of the day. Morales squared it at the par-5 12th, then did something at the par-5 15th she hadn’t done all week: She went for the green in two.
Morales knew she couldn’t go long, so with 197 yards to the pin on her second shot, she pulled a 19-degree hybrid and nestled her ball into rough just off the green. She two-putted for birdie from there, gaining no advantage thanks to Wu’s improbable birdie.
“Bethany, to her credit, she did not give up.” Morales said.
Morales will return home to South Salem, N.Y., for a week of rest leading up to the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Getting there, she hopes, will be much smoother than getting to Fort Wayne. Morales, coming from New York, was supposed to meet her father Miguel, coming from Florida, in the Atlanta airport on the Saturday before the championship. When Nicole’s flight was delayed, Miguel continued on to Fort Wayne. Nicole arrived Sunday morning, and her clubs arrived late that afternoon. She had time for just a few practice shots on the range that afternoon.
Miguel tells this story with a surprising absence of rage, a trait Nicole obviously inherited. Stranded in Atlanta for the night, she had the presence of mind to call the American Junior Golf Association, located nearby, and ask if she could “crash” at their headquarters. Instead, executive director Stephen Hamblin arrived to pick her up, and brought her back to his family for a home-cooked meal and a play to stay.
People tend to want to do nice things for Morales, and Morales is single-minded in her desire to pay it back. She was 8 years old when swing instructor Cheryl Anderson got Morales a job as a range attendant at the LPGA’s Big Apple Classic at Wykagl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y. Morales got to watch her heroes up close that week.
“I was 8; I was a little pipsqueak,” she remembered.
Now a player representative for the AJGA, Morales relished a recent opportunity to do a question-and-answer session with 25 kids from the Atlanta First Tee chapter.
In her final year before joining the Alabama roster, Morales will move from her home in South Salem to Lake Mary, Fla., where she’ll work intensely with Anderson at the Mike Bender Academy. Miguel, a tennis professional, has secured a job coaching and teaching at Lake Mary Prep, where his daughter will finish her coursework. Retirement in that area could be in the cards for the Morales family. This move has been in the cards, too.
“The long-term plan was to make the Lake Mary area near her coach the home base,” Miguel said.
Nicole might miss the first day or two of school because of the Junior Solheim Cup, to be played Aug. 12-14 near Denver, but it’s more than worth it. It’s at this point that Morales became the first player in this scribe’s career to spell out the kicker.
“I want to play with (Wu) at the Junior Solheim,” she said excitedly. “End it with that.”