Last-Minute Entrants, Playoff Survivors Thriving at El Caballero April 30, 2018 | Tarzana, Calif. By Tom Mackin

A carefree mindset has helped Kansas State grads Paige Nelson (left) and Katherine Gravel-Coursol reach the Round of 16. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)

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After earning the final match-play spot in the 4th U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball on the fifth playoff hole as darkness fell on Sunday, Katharine Gravel-Coursol and Paige Nelson chose to celebrate with a quiet dinner.

There would be no late-night pomp and circumstance, not with an 8:30 a.m. Round-of-32 match scheduled the following morning against the medalists.

That low-key strategy paid off as the former Kansas State University teammates upset the top-seeded duo of Annick Haczkiewicz and Sydney Smith, 2 and 1, Monday at El Caballero Country Club. It’s the first time in championship history that the No. 32 and final seed has eliminated the No. 1 seed.

Gravel-Coursol, of Canada, and Nelson, of Farmers Branch, Texas, never wavered after building a 3-up lead through six holes. By the time they reached the 15th tee, their margin was 4 up after a Nelson birdie on No. 14. But even after Haczkiewicz and Smith won two consecutive holes with pars to trim the deficit, Nelson ended the festivities with a 9-foot birdie putt on the par-5 17th hole.  

“We had to try not to get ahead ourselves,” said Nelson, 23, who is competing in her first USGA championship. “We started talking with our caddie (El Caballero member Daniel Schindler) about visiting Hollywood afterward, and then he started talking about maybe needing rain gear for tomorrow. But we still had to finish the match. So we just stopped talking about that stuff and got back to work.”

Added Gravel-Coursol: “We also knew we had so much good golf behind us, so we didn’t let it [losing two holes] affect us.”

Earlier in the match, Gravel-Coursol produced a dramatic shot from a fairway bunker on No. 9. With water protecting the green on the left and a left hole location, the 24-year-old faced a challenging 190-yard approach with a hybrid.

“It started going toward the water on the left side of the green,” said Gravel-Coursol, who thought for a moment the ball might end up in the pond. “Then it hit right near some rocks, bounced forward and stopped 10 feet from the pin (she two-putted for par to halve the hole). That was a gift.”

The former Wildcats nearly missed the deadline to enter this year’s championship. The night before the close of entries, Gravel-Coursol texted her ex-teammate about filing.

“I said, ‘Hey you want to play in this event?’” said Gravel-Coursol.

“I said sure,” said Nelson. “We both thought it would be something fun we could do after not playing much golf all summer.”

The qualifier at Mission Hills Country Club in Kansas City, Mo., last October did not start well for them, however.

El Caballero member Dan Schindler, who is caddieing for the Kansas State grads, loves how their games mesh in this format. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)

“On the first tee, Paige hit her drive way right and then I hit mine way left. I said to her, ‘See you at the green,’” said Gravel-Coursol. “We bogeyed that hole, but then made six birdies and ended up beating the medalists.”

Gravel-Coursol, who lost in the Round of 64 in the 2011 U.S. Girls’ Junior to current LPGA Tour player Megan Khang, has a simple philosophy when it comes to match play.  

“Whatever happens, happens, but in the back of my head I still want to win,” said the left-handed Gravel-Coursol. “But if you go on the course thinking about that, it adds extra pressure. We’re pretty laid back, so when we tee off we’re just thinking about the hole we’re playing.”

“Make each shot good and then go to the next one,” added Nelson.

Despite that shared approach, Schindler, who is carrying the bags for both players, thinks the two are quite different players.

“Paige hits it very straight and is a very aggressive putter,” he said. “Delightful short game, too. She got up and down a few times in the last 24 hours with shots that were absolutely remarkable. Katherine is very gritty, determined and competitive. Lovely long putter who really found the speed of the greens for the first time today.”

Can they keep the momentum going in the Round of 16 on Tuesday morning against four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Meghan Stasi and Dawn Woodard, the oldest remaining team with a combined age of 82? Their looper certainly thinks so.

“I see no reason why not,” said Schindler. “It’s match play. It’s not like they’re erratic. They’re both in and around it all the time. As we get better each day with the feel for the greens, they can go all the way.”

“Even when we’re not in the zone, we are making shots,” said Gravel-Coursol. “I think we just have something going right now.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at temackinjr@gmail.com.

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