by Katherine Fitzgerald/USA TODAY Network
PHOENIX – Incredible moments on Arizona golf courses are not new to Sarah Schmelzel.
After all, she was a standout at Xavier Prep Academy in Phoenix and won the Arizona high school golf state championship in 2011. She has fond memories of watching LPGA stops at Moon Valley Country Club growing up.
She had another good round of golf on Thursday at the Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. This time though, a few things were different.
Schmelzel is at just the third LPGA stop of her career and her first in the U.S. Her debut came just five weeks ago at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.
After shooting a first-round 67, Schmelzel’s five-under has her near the top of a crowded leaderboard. During her morning wave, she spent most of her time on the course in the top three, and held the solo lead at a few points during the day.
‘Really excited about the start’
“It was really fun,” Schmelzel said. “It was very comfortable looking over outside the ropes and seeing my boyfriend, my mom, my dad, and my brother and people from my golf club that I grew up at here. So it was nice. It was comfortable. But really excited about the start.”
The comfort went beyond just playing in her home state or seeing family and friends nearby. Schmelzel’s group also included Dana Finkelstein, who grew up in Chandler and played in high school at Tempe Corona Del Sol.
The two got to know each other when they were preteens, making Thursday’s grouping all the more fun.
“It’s like junior golf days all over again,” Finkelstein said. “The odds of that happening (being in the same group) were slim, but it was a fun day. She played really well, and hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”
A brush with greatness
Schmelzel certainly has a lot of great golf memories growing up in Arizona. One of them though started with a call to the principal.
“I can’t remember what grade I was in, in elementary school. I just remember I got called up to the office. I was like, ‘Oh, no. That’s not good,'” she said.
Instead it was great. Her dad had arrived at Hidden Hills Elementary School to scoop her up for a day to watch the second round of the Standard Register PING in Phoenix at Moon Valley Country Club in 2001.
There, she got to witness Annika Sorenstam card a historic 13-under par 59. the lowest score in the history of the LPGA.
“(My dad) had a friend that taught out there that I knew really well that just told him to come on in, something special was happening,” Schmelzel said. “I got to witness most of back nine. For me that was a real turning point in kind of what I thought about golf, what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
An eager-eyed Schmelzel got a golf ball from Sorenstam and a strengthened love of the game.
“Just seeing her out there inside the ropes, and everyone was so captivated with what she was doing and how confident she was and how competitive it was. It just really kind of pushed me forward know I wanted to do this and I wanted be in her position,” Schmelzel said. “It’s crazy that I’m here now. Trying to soak it in.”
With all that going through her head as she returned to Phoenix, Schmelzel admitted there was some added pressure in her stateside LPGA debut. She tempered her excitement and nerves, and let her play take over.
“I think maybe after my birdie on the second hole, No. 2,” she said. “Just kind of to see one go in, ease the tension a little bit. That was kind of what got me to calm down.”
From there, she posted birdies on holes 5, 7, 11, 12 and 13. She had just one bogey on her scorecard: the par-5 15th hole.
“I putted really well on the front,” she said. “Made a lot of really crucial par putts. Just kind of getting a feel for the greens in the morning. I think that was the big thing.”
Schmelzel played collegiately at South Carolina, where she was named a GolfWeek All-America Honorable Mention her senior season (2015-16). After college, she moved back to Arizona. The Wildfire course is just about 16 miles from Xavier, which has a storied golf program.
“Sister Lynn, (I’m) always getting her Christmas newsletters and all that stuff and get text messages here and there from her,” Schmelzel said. “It’s a family. You never lose it and they’re great. So supportive.”
The newsletter has some other notable recepients. Other Xavier golf alums include Heather Farr, Missy Farr, Grace Park, Amanda Blumenherst, Cheyenne Woods and Hannah O’Sullivan, all of whom won an Arizona high school state title.
Now on the LPGA tour herself, Schmelzel is hoping to stay atop the leaderboard for the rest of the Founders Cup.
“Just to keep climbing,” she said, on how she felt when she had the lead Thursday. “At the end of the last Symetra year I kind of got into the mentality of looking at the top of the leaderboard rather than the bottom and the cut numbers, so I am just trying to look at the top and keep chasing the top.”
This is her third LPGA start this season, which includes a missed cut and T-52. She had seven top-10s on the Symetra Tour in 2018, including four top-5s in her final five events of the season.