The quality of girls golf in the Wiregrass has reached a national level times three.
Emilia Smith and Ashley-Sinclair Curtis, rising seniors at Enterprise High School, and Lauren Thompson, an upcoming junior at Providence Christian, have all qualified for prestigious U.S. junior tournaments to be played later this month.
Curtis and Thompson qualified in mid-June to compete in the 44th annual Girls Junior PGA Championship in Hartford, Conn., next week, July 9-12. Smith qualified last week for the USGA’s 71st U.S. Girls Junior Championship in Stevens Point, Wis., on July 22-27.
The Hartford tournament features 144 of the best high school-aged golfers in the country. The Wisconsin tourney has 150 of the top golfers.
The three hope to put the Wiregrass on the national golf map during these national events.
“It is a big deal for our area, something to be proud of and something I am proud to be a part of, especially since I know these girls and we have grown up playing golf in high school and tournaments together,” Smith said. “It is exciting to see all of us be successful and it is exciting to show where we are from and to represent Enterprise and Dothan.”
Curtis added, “It says a lot about our area. We are very competitive at girls golf down here. I think people need to start respecting the South.”
Thompson said not only does it make a statement about the area’s talent, but its work ethic, too.
“From the Wiregrass, we are kind of known as a smaller kind of area, so to have three girls go to tournaments like these is awesome,” Thompson said. “It is awesome to see that there are girls down here who do work their butts off for tournaments like these. It is exciting.”
Curtis and Thompson earned the only two qualifying spots of the Alabama-NW Florida Junior PGA Championship June 12-13 at TimberCreek Golf Club in Daphne.
Curtis won the two-day, 36-hole event with a 2-over 146, capped by a 2-under 70 on the last day.
“God be with the glory,” Curtis said. “I really wasn’t thinking I would get to go (to national). It kind of caught me by surprise. I had the round of my life in the second day.”
Thompson had to work a little more to earn the second spot after tying with Spanish Fort’s Lauren Gilchrist and Pensacola’s Payton Pacheco with final scores of 6-over 150. Thompson, though, won in a playoff, edging Gilchrist on the third playoff hole to finish it.
“It felt good that my work that week paid off,” Thompson said. “To win it (the spot) in a playoff is even better, knowing I kept my cool. It was actually the first time I had been in a playoff before, so it was a really good experience.”
Smith took the second qualifying spot at a one-day, 18-hole section meet last Thursday at Scottsboro’s Goose Pond Colony Course. She had to do it in a playoff, beating out Auburn’s Morgan Jones on the first hole. Both finished regulation at 1-under 71.
“I am very, very excited to qualify for the USGA Championships,” Smith said. “I definitely put in the hard work. It was a tough tournament for sure, lots of competition, but I stuck it out and I was able to make it, thank God.”
Michaela Morard of Huntsville, an Alabama verbal commitment, won at Goose Pond with a 5-under-par 67.
All three girls, who got into golf because of hanging out with their dads – Paul Curtis, Greg Thompson and Kyle Smith – said they will prepare for the national with a lot of practice.
Curtis overcomes slow start
Though she ended in the top spot, Curtis got off to a rough start with a triple bogey on her third hole -- the par 4 No. 12 – after starting on the back nine.
“I hit out of bounds, hit in fairway bunker and accidentally moved the ball in the bunker swinging, so I called a stroke on myself,” Curtis said of the disastrous hole.
She regrouped, going 1-under over the next six holes with a birdie on the par-5 15th hole, and eventually completed the round at 4-over 76.
“It wasn’t my best (round), but it was pretty solid,” Curtis said.
She wasn’t expecting to be near the top of the leaderboard, but found out she was in third place.
“I felt I would be in the middle of the pack until I came in and I was one shot back,” Curtis said. “That was a nice surprise.”
Pacheco and Auburn’s Morgan Jones led the way at 75. Curtis and Thompson both cited poor greens for the high scores.
Playing in the final group in round two with Pacheco and Jones, the Enterprise standout pulled away down the stretch behind three birdies.
“We were all square at nine for the tournament and I got a shot on both of them at the turn and I just kept making pars and pars,” Curtis said. “Morgan (Jones) made a double and Payton (Pacheco) made a couple of bogeys then I made a few birdies, so I kind of separated.”
Overall, Curtis finished the round with a 2-under 70, highlighted by four birdies. She finished the two days with six birdies.
“I hit a lot of good wedge shots close the second day, so I had a lot of close putts (for birdie chances),” Curtis said.
Thompson calm in playoff
Experiencing a playoff for the first time, Thompson had only one thought in her mind.
“I tried to calm my nerves down and not focus on the outcome,” she said.
That approach paid off.
After finishing, Thompson, Gilchrist and Pacheco went to No. 10 to open the playoff. Pacheco dropped out with a bogey on the first hole, while Gilchrist and Thompson both made pars. They moved on to No. 12 after two more pars on 11.
“I hit my drive in the fairway and she (Gilchrist) hit hers in the fairway,” Thompson said of No. 12. “I hit up on the green, probably about 15 feet from the pin, and made a good putt to about 3 feet from the hole and she did the same, but left hers about 4 feet. I made my 3-footer (for par) and she missed hers.”
Thompson opened with a 76, which included four bogeys with no birdies.
“The first day was solid. I had a few bogeys here and there,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t too worried. I knew I was capable of shooting a low score. I went out the second day determined to do that.”
Though she had four more bogeys, she also carded two birdies on day two for a 74, good enough to earn a spot in the playoff.
“I hit more greens that day, which made putting a lot easier and I dropped a few birdies,” said Thompson.
Smith rallies for second
With only one day of competition, Smith had to do some major work over the final 13 holes.
“It was a bumpy start,” Smith said. “Out of the first five holes, I was already 3-over. So it was kind of nerve-racking. I made a couple birdies and got my head back in the game. I tried to make that comeback and I was able to.”
After a bogey on holes No. 1, 4 and 5, she made birdies on 7, 8 and 10 to get even. Another birdie at 14 pushed her to 1-under and she finished with pars on the last four holes to get to 71.
Smith said most of the birdie putts were within 11 feet except for 14, which was about 20 feet.
“I think I let some of those nerves get to me,” Smith said of the start. “I realized I couldn’t play nervous golf and that I had to be more aggressive and take some more dangerous shots to the pin. That was the only way I would be able to get back to where I needed to be.”
Having started with the second group, Smith had to wait for an hour for the rest of the field before finding out she had a playoff with Auburn’s Jones for the second and final qualifying spot.
Playing the par-4, 315-yard 18th hole, Smith made a par and Jones a bogey to decide that second spot.