15-year-old rallies from 2 down with two to play in first-round match to beat De GnewsContent on 19th hole August 9, 2011 By David Shefter, USGA


Nicole Morales rode a hot putter late in her first-round match to beat Emma De GnewsContent in 19 holes. (Steven Gibbons/USGA) 


Barrington, R.I. – For those living in Providence, Middletown, Cranston and Newport, that scream coming from across Narragansett Bay around 1 p.m. on Wednesday didn’t require a 911 call.

It was just an excited 15-year-old holing a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Rhode Island Country Club.

The ebullient golfer was Nicole Morales, a precocious high school sophomore from South Salem, N.Y., who forced extra holes with a dramatic comeback in a first-round match at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Morales used the momentum of three consecutive birdies to rally past 23-year-old Emma De GnewsContent of Australia in 19 holes. The downhill putt on the par-4 finishing hole came after she made a 20-foot birdie on No. 16 that halved the hole and kept the match going. Then she made a winning 2 on the par-3 17th, knocking a 9-iron from 140 yards to 10 feet.

Her drive at 18 found the right rough and De GnewsContent’s fairway metal approach from the fairway landed 15 feet from the flagstick.

It was go big or go home, said Morales of her mindset before running up a hybrid approach from 175 yards to 10 feet above the flagstick.

De GnewsContent came up short on her birdie attempt, leaving Morales an opening.

It was pretty much straight and I got lucky that I read it right, and [the ball] found the bottom of the cup.

A loud scream followed, along with clapping from the gallery assembled around the green.

There were a couple of fist-pumps, said the emotional Morales, who had been a first-round victim in last month’s U.S. Girls’ Junior after finishing among the top five scorers in stroke-play qualifying. I said, ‘Come on, Come on!’

Perhaps a bit shaken by the comeback, De GnewsContent’s approach from the fairway at the par-4 first hole came up a tad short in an awkward lie. I think she was in a crevice, said Morales.

Her putt hobbled to the green, stopping 6 feet short, and her par putt to continue the match burned the edge of the hole.

That was fun and extremely nerve-racking, said Morales.

Morales has come a long way from the incredulous 12-year-old who qualified for the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Hartford (Conn.) Golf Club. She has grown a few inches and added some 30 yards to her tee shots. She still works with instructor Cheryl Anderson, who is now based at the Mike Bender Academy in Orlando, Fla.

Morales uses spring break and long three-day weekends to fly down to Florida, where she stays with Anderson, who has been her only instructor since she took up the game seven years ago. At one time, Morales was one of the top 10-and-under tennis players in the country, but a shoulder injury ended her tennis career and pushed her toward golf.

Recently, her game got a major boost when she received an internship at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y., giving Morales full access to the 18-hole course and practice facilities. Director of Golf Rob Labritz, the low club professional at the 2010 PGA Championship, and head pro Brian Cowell were instrumental in getting her into the private Westchester County club. In exchange for the privileges, Morales wears club logo hats and shirts as well as assisting with kiddie camps.

The club is five minutes from the Sawmill Club, where Miguel Morales, Nicole’s dad, is a professional tennis instructor, and 10 minutes from her home. Miguel drops Nicole off in the morning and she stays at the club all day either playing or practicing.

That was my golden ticket, she said of the internship. I owe it all to them. They have an amazing practice facility. I go there from dawn ‘till dusk, just working on wedges and working on putts, and it has paid off.

Since that first eye-opening Girls’ Junior experience, where she says every player was 4 inches taller and four to five years older, Morales has not only gained distance, but also valuable course-management skills. She almost made the match-play cut at the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at Red Tail G.C. in Devens, Mass. She missed the Girls’ Junior that year, but qualified in 2010 and advanced to the round of 16 at The Country Club of North Carolina.

Last month at Olympia Fields, she couldn’t get any putts to fall in a disappointing first-round 4-and-3 loss to Bryanna Nguyen. Morales had been the No. 4 seed out of qualifying.

Morales continued her fine play during stroke-play qualifying at Rhode Island C.C. She earned the 17th seed and attracted a half-dozen college coaches from some of the nation’s best programs, even though she is three years away from graduating  at John Jay High in Cross River.

This past spring, she was the only female to qualify for the New York High School Golf Championship held annually at the Cornell University G.C.  In a couple of weeks, she will compete in a Futures Tour event in Albany, N.Y., an invitation that came just days before the Women’s Amateur started.

Against De GnewsContent, Morales played from behind the entire match, although she lipped out a 5-footer for birdie at the first hole.

Signs of her on-course maturity were illustrated at the 220-yard, par-4 sixth hole, where the tees had been moved up 84 yards from stroke play. Three years ago, Morales would have tried driving the green.

On Wednesday, a wiser Morales took out a hybrid and laid up. She halved the hole.

If I was 12, I would have pulled out driver … and done something stupid, she said. I finally understand the concept of what club do I want to hit into this hole. Where do you want to leave yourself a good putt? Don’t miss it on the high side.

But she couldn’t get any putts to fall until the final few holes.   

That’s when the putter got hot and the screaming started.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at dshefter@usga.org.