2005: Pressel doesn’t slip, keeps Harder grip

Sebring, Fla.

There wasn’t supposed to be a scintillating finish. Standing on the third tee with a commanding seven-stroke advantage, Morgan Pressel appeared primed to win the Harder Hall Invitational in her first attempt.

Yet there she was 14 holes later clinging to a one-shot lead over Julieta Granada and Ashley Hoagland. A perfectly placed drive cut the corner of the dogleg par-5 17th, leaving Pressel with 180 yards to the pin. She took a rip with her trusty Callaway 11-wood and landed just off the left edge of the green.

Granada and Hoagland hit the 480-yard hole in regulation and two-putted for par. Pressel nestled her downhill chip to 2 feet, setting up a birdie that would clinch the title.

“I was definitely letting it slip away,” said Pressel of her blunders, which included bogeys at Nos. 9 and 14. “I was trying not to feel like I was letting it go, like I was holding on to something.”

Pressel carded a final-round 72 Jan. 8 at Harder Hall Country Club to finish with a tournament-record 9-under-par 279 total. Granada, the reigning U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, shot her second consecutive 68 to share runner-up honors with Hoagland (67) at 281.

A gallery of close to 75 followed every step of the momentum-building match. Among them was 75-year-old Nancy Fassler, a Baltimore transplant who has enjoyed up-close-and-personal encounters with some of the best women amateurs in the world over the last six years. And in Sebring, Fla., of all places.

As the first stop on the Florida Orange Blossom Circuit, this central Florida town is where players have long gathered to shake off the winter rust. Recent Harder Hall champions include Beth Bauer, Natalie Gulbis, Aree Song and Brittany Lincicome.

Pressel, Fassler’s latest discovery, has as lengthy a resume as her LPGA predecessors. The 16-year-old Floridian burst onto the national scene at age 12 when she became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She has continued to grab headlines as she’s progressed through the junior ranks and is coming off a stellar 2004.

In addition to winning the Women’s North and South Amateur at Pinehurst, N.C., Pressel garnered victories at the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic, Rolex Tournament of Champions and Valero Texas Open. She won the Florida High School State Championship, and also advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior.

Pressel has been honing her iron play this winter, and saw the results in her 6-under 66 on Day 3. Her putting routine, however, is what caught Fassler’s eye.

The 16-handicapper was “fascinated” by how Pressel keeps her right hand behind her back prior to stroking the ball, a technique that helps set her left-hand grip.

“If only I’d started when I was 15,” Fassler, who picked up the game at age 55, said with a sigh.

At ages 16 and 18, respectively, Pressel and Granada have played enough rounds together to know to expect the unexpected.

The pair combined for 14 birdies Friday, and although she trailed by six at the start of the final round, Granada knew she had a chance.

The Paraguayan cut the lead to one shot on the 14th with a birdie but failed to capitalize on the two remaining par 5s. In retrospect, Granada said she should’ve gone for the green in two on No. 17.

“Second and third is the same thing,” said Granada, who had beat Pressel by two shots 10 days earlier at the Junior Orange Bowl. “If I went for it, I had a chance to win.”

While the teen-age sensations were duking it out, Hoagland quietly was mounting her charge. The Wake Forest senior birdied three consecutive holes on the back nine and pulled within one on No. 15.

Wayward drives on the final two holes, however, hurt Hoagland’s chances down the stretch. Still, she was pleased with her closing 67.

“This tournament has been the most fun I’ve had in a while,” said Hoagland, who won the Dixie Amateur Dec. 22. “I had missed a bunch of putts all week, so I knew my time was due.”


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