Merkle, Simanton to play LPGA Safeway

Kristina Merkle’s decision to fly from her home in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Portland, Ore., last month for a shot at LPGA glory paid off in a big way. The Tulsa sophomore earned a spot in the field at this week’s LPGA Safeway Classic after winning the Safeway Classic Amateur Open. She’ll be joined by fellow college player Amy Simanton, a sophomore at UC Davis.

Merkle, who ended her freshman season with the Hurricanes by earning Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors, shot even-par 71 at Langdon Farms course near Portland for a three-shot victory over Simanton and incoming Washington freshman A Ram Choi.

Merkle made the trip with the sole purpose of qualifying for the Safeway. Merkle’s dad works for Hawaiian Airlines, so her airfare to Portland was free.

“I said, ‘Why not? Why not take a chance?’” Merkle said of her reasoning behind the trip to the Amateur Open.

The trip paid off in the end, but the round wasn’t without its share of excitement. Merkle was 1 under before a double-bogey at the 15th. She parred at Nos. 16 and 17, then landed her drive at the par-5 18th hole in bushes right of the fairway. Her second shot landed across the fairway, and her 150-yard approach landed 4 feet from the hole. She made the putt for birdie, not knowing that she was safely in the lead anyway.

Already this week at the Safeway Classic, Merkle has gotten to see in person the same LPGA players she grew up watching on TV. Watching Laura Davies on the driving range was a particularly good experience.

“She was crushing them out there and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Merkle said.

Simanton earned her spot in the Monday qualifier for the event. Her second-place finish at the Amateur Open got her in the qualifier, and she advanced with a 1-under 71 at Pumpkin Ridge's Ghost Creek course to earn one of two spots available in the tournament. LPGA veteran Jean Bartholomew earned the other spot, tying Simanton’s 71.

“I was just thinking about how cool it is playing in your first LPGA tournament in your home state and your hometown,” Simanton told The Oregonian. “That’s just awesome for me to have that experience, and to have people I know, my family and friends, watching me is going to be really, really exciting.”

The Oregon native also is about to start her sophomore year after a successful freshman campaign that included five top-5 finishes and a playoff loss for individual medalist at the Big West Conference Championship.

A showdown with some of the top LPGA players in the game? Talk about a warm-up for the upcoming college season.

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