5 Things: Jutanugarn, Lee-Bentham tie for title

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Moriya Jutanugarn has played enough golf to know that some days you can visualize the shots, and some days you can’t. The final round of LPGA Q-School was one of those days when she just couldn’t see it.

Jutanugarn shot 2-over 74 Sunday on LPGA International’s Champions Course, her worst round of the week, but won co-champion honors with Rebecca Lee-Bentham. It means the 18-year-old from Bangkok has officially moved from the amateur circuit to the professional level.

“It’s real,” Jutanugarn said Sunday with visible relief.

While one goal was realized, Jutanugarn came to terms with the fact that she “peaked” this week with a second-round 66. It’s a personal goal of hers to shoot a lower score with each passing day of a tournament, but she couldn’t make it happen at LPGA International. She didn’t need to.

“I know I’m going to get my card before I played,” Jutanugarn said of taking a six-shot lead into the final round. When she realized she didn’t have her “A” game, she adopted a new mantra: Just let it happen.

As Jutanugarn parred the par-5 18th from a hazard left of the green, Rebecca Lee-Bentham drained a birdie putt to meet Jutanugarn at 13-under 347. For the second consecutive year, Lee-Bentham shot a final-round 67. She earned her card at Q-School in 2011, but only made four cuts in 14 LPGA starts.

“My goal was just stay calm, and I knew I could play out here as long as I kept the nerves down and played my best,” said Lee Bentham, who began the day seven shots behind Jutanugarn.

Lee-Bentham turned professional last November after a year on the Texas roster. She lives with her sister in Toronto, but comes south to Daytona Beach to practice when the weather turns nasty at home. Last year, she won a Suncoast Series event on LPGA International’s Champions Course. This year, she won one on the Legends Course.

“I know the courses well.”

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2. BIGGEST MOVER: Kayla Morterllaro is a textbook example for young players who struggle to come to terms with this fact: It is possible to overcome a few really bad holes.

The recent Idaho graduate shot a first-round 79 on the Legends Course that included a triple and a double bogey. That round immediately moved her to T-112. She spent the rest of the week chipping away at her deficit. A bogey-free final-round 67 cemented Mortellaro’s fate, moving her from T-39 to T-11 and earning her an LPGA tour card for 2013.

“I was just really focused on that cliche of one shot at a time,” Mortellaro said of her mindset entering the final round.

She came off the 10th green, her 18th hole, with wide eyes, unsure of where she was on the leaderboard. She knew she had nowhere to go but up, and compares the pressure she felt at one-day USGA qualifiers, where you have one shot to make your mark.

Q-School, she says, is just a little more grueling.

• • •

3. NO MORE NASTY: On paper, Austin Ernst looks a little more grown up than she did a few short months ago. She no longer has the lowercase “a” next to her name, having dropped her amateur status before the final stage of Q-School. She doesn’t wear her LSU gear anymore, having traded her textbooks for a “9-to-5” as a young professional. Most notably – aside from the @AustinErnst92 Twitter handle she recently changed from her former @golfnasty – Ernst has a brand new tour card and has signed with Empire Sports for management.

“I just live the dream now,” Ernst said of the time she’s spent honing her game with dad (and caddie) Mark’s help at home in Seneca, S.C. The 2011 NCAA individual champion had never played a professional event until the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. There are things she misses about college now, but playing golf full time certainly has its benefits.

“I weighed all of the pros and cons and everything, and it just turned out that was the best option for me,” Ernst said of turning professional.

In addition to her tour card, she’ll also cash her first check of $1,925. Previously, she had only been able to take money off older brother Drew, who also has turned professional after a collegiate career at Coastal Carolina.

• • •

4. SECOND CHANCES: Kathleen Ekey gets a shot at redemption next year after finishing solo fourth to retain her LPGA tour status. It was a disappointing rookie year for the Alabama graduate, who made the cut just three times in 15 starts.

Ekey held a share of the first-round lead, but stumbled the next two days with rounds of 73-75.

A final-round 65 included seven birdies and no bogeys. She chipped in twice. It was the lowest score among the 71 players who advanced to Sunday’s fifth and final round.

“After I had such a good year in 2011, this year was so hard for me,” said Ekey, decked out in her normal Sunday attire of red, white and blue. “... I’m just so happy.”

• • •

5. IT’S A MARATHON: As if 90 holes of regulation weren’t enough, seven players had to play off for the four remaining tour cards at the end of the day. Taylor Karle, Irene Cho, Nicole Jeray and Lauren Doughtie earned cards as Kelly Jacques, Breanna Elliott and Jiyaun Li dropped to the next priority level.

Karle, among the first to advance, was so fired up after the three-hole aggregate playoff, during which she made birdie at Nos. 10 and 18, that she said she could even go for another round.

“This last hole was the shot that I hadn’t really executed well this whole week, and this was the time to execute it,” she said of the approach she hit to 15 feet at the 18th. “...It’s been a good week. It’s been a lot of progress but also a lot of things that I’ve learned from.”

The former Pepperdine player goes by the nickname Hammer T, one given by her parents because of her tendency to “hammer home the birdies,” especially down the stretch. It was fitting for Sunday’s playoff performance.

From here, Karle’s offseason plans include throwing a “sick Christmas party” before she returns to workouts and fine-tuning of her game. She plans to tee it off in any event she can find – Cactus Tour, Suncoast Series, Symetra Tour – to keep her game sharp until the LPGA season starts.

“They’re great tournaments, they’re hard,” she said. “... It’s intense, it’s a lot of really good scores and really good girls.”

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