by Gary Baines
In 1993, Colorado celebrated its only team victory ever in the Girls Junior Americas Cup. And now, exactly a quarter-century later, the squad reprenting the Centennial State would like nothing better than to make sure the '93 team has some company on the list of champions.
And the Coloradans took a step in the right direction on Wednesday on their home turf as they finished day 1 just a stroke out of the lead in the three-day event at Hiwan Golf Club in Evergreen.
In the first GJAC held in Colorado since 2000, the local team shot a 9-over-par 219 on the difficult Hiwan course, which leaves it in third place out of 18 teams.
In a competition which features some of the top junior players from the western U.S., Canada and Mexico, Mexico shares the lead with Southern Nevada. Mexico, which first won the team title in 1997 when a girl named Lorena Ochoa earned the first of three individual GJAC championships, has captured this title seven times, including in 2013, '14 and '15. Southern Nevada has never won the GJAC team title before.
"It's a good situation (to be in contention), but there's a ton of golf left to be played," said Kelsey Webster (left) of Boulder, who led the team with an even-par 70 on Wednesday. "I do know the team can put up some good numbers. We have some really good players.
"I think our hometown advantage is huge at this tournament, just with the (difficult-to-read) greens and having played four practice rounds here. I think these greens are just baffling to some girls, and the two girls I played with really struggled on the greens. I think playing for a lag putt on your first putt and taking two putts is the way to go.
"But we also know there are some very good players out here -- especially the California teams, which usually put up some really good numbers. I wouldn't be surprised if their numbers got better and better throughout the week as they started to figure out the greens. We've got to do the same thing. It's exciting to be in contention, and we'll see what happens."
The top five teams are very tightly bunched after day 1, with fifth-place Southern California -- winner of the last two titles -- just three out of the lead.
"I'm really excited to come back out and try to keep Colorado in those top couple of spots here at home," said Lauren Lehigh (left) of Loveland, who rallied to post a 74. "We all know we can improve on our scores each day, so I think we'll have a really good chance (to contend for the title)."
Individually, Colorado put three players in the top dozen and ties after Wednesday. Webster, a University of Colorado-bound golfer who's participating in her first GJAC and her last junior tournament, shares second place with her 70, while Lehigh (74) is seventh and Hailey Schalk of Erie (75) 12th. Rounding out Colorado's scores was a 77 by 5A state high school champion Emma Bryant of Aurora.
McKenzi Hall of Southern Nevada shot the only sub-par score on Wednesday at the former home of the Colorado Open -- a 2-under-par 68. She made three birdies and one bogey on the day to grab a two-stroke lead.
Webster is tied for second with Cory Lopez of Mexico. After the Boulder resident made bogeys following tee shots that went right on her eighth and ninth holes, she parred each of her final nine holes. Earlier in her round, she chipped in for birdie from 30 feet on her second hole, the formidable 11th ("It was the best birdie I'm every going to have," she said) and added another birdie on her sixth hole (No. 15).
"I was hitting it extremely well today," Webster said. "Overall, I played really well. Of course, I'm always craving to be under par. But I have to look at these greens and know par is a really good score here.
"It is one of my better rounds, especially hitting the ball. I've never felt so confident hitting the ball, which is really fun, especially when I have an iron in my hand. That's why I play the game of golf -- for rounds like these when you can just walk up to the ball and know it's going to be a good shot."
Lehigh, the 2017 4A state high school champion, birdied two of her last three holes -- from less than a foot and from 2 feet -- for her 74.
Schalk (left), at age 16, is playing in her third GJAC. And though she wasn't happy with a round in which she played her final 14 holes in 6 over par, she's trying to keep it in perspective.
"Honestly, this is a hard golf course," said the 2017 Junior Golf Alliance of Colorado Girls Player of the Year. "The greens are hard and you really have to hit it in the right spots, so I think our team did really well.
"With us playing Eisenhower (Golf Club for a JGAC major each year), that's an advantage for us here because most of these girls don't have a course like Eisenhower where the greens are all slopey and really fast (like Hiwan's are also). We probably did a little better in that area today. And we're used to this kind of hilly, mountain course where some of them might not be, so I do think we have an advantage."
The 2018 Girls Junior Americas Cup is being conducted by the Junior Golf Alliance of Colorado.
3. (out of 18 teams) Colorado 219
2. Kelsey Webster, Boulder 70
7. Lauren Lehigh, Loveland 74
12. Hailey Schalk, Erie 75
27. Emma Bryant, Aurora 77
For all the scores from the Girls Junior Americas Cup, CLICK HERE.