Talley Among Latest 'Tour Hopefuls' at Shoal Creek May 29, 2018 | Shoal Creek, Ala. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Emma Talley was welcomed with open arms when she became a part of Shoal Creek's 'Tour Hopefuls' program. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Ten years ago this summer, Shoal Creek hosted the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. At about the same time, Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson was laying the groundwork for an initiative that continues to thrive at the club: the “Tour Hopefuls” program.

Michael Thompson (no relation) had been the runner-up to Colt Knost in the 2007 U.S. Amateur Championship, and he graduated from the University of Alabama the following spring. The 2008 Southeastern Conference player of the year and the low amateur in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Thompson had decided to turn professional.

“Mr. Thompson wanted to help Michael,” said Eric Williamson, the director of golf at Shoal Creek. “Michael was going to move to the Birmingham area and Mr. Thompson wanted to give him access to our facility. That’s how the program originated.”

Michael Thompson went on to earn full-time status on the PGA Tour, where he is competing in his eighth season. He finished tied for second in the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club to Webb Simpson and he has one victory on Tour (the 2013 Honda Classic) among more than 40 top-25 finishes and $7 million in career earnings. Thompson is now also a full member of Shoal Creek.

Another recent “graduate” of the Tour Hopefuls program, and a current Shoal Creek member, is Smylie Kaufman, who grew up in the area and played frequently at Shoal Creek as a member of nearby Vestavia Country Club. Kaufman even proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Francie Harris, on the scenic 14th hole at Shoal Creek last fall. The winner of the 2015 PGA Tour Shriners Hospital for Children Open tied the knot with Harris last month at Vestavia.

This week, current Tour Hopeful and 2016 Alabama graduate Emma Talley is playing in her fifth U.S. Women’s Open – and first as a professional – at what she calls her “home away from home.”

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” said Talley, 24, of the Tour Hopefuls program. “All the players out here are good, so it gets you some competition. The facilities are amazing, too. I was really excited to be able to play this week.”

Talley, who joined the Tour Hopefuls program in 2016 when she moved to Birmingham after turning professional, got into this week’s championship by making a 6-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole in a sectional qualifier at Dunwoody (Ga.) Country Club on May 7. That gave her the fourth and final spot out of 78 hopefuls.

“I made a story for y’all, for sure,” said Talley with a laugh. “I definitely made it interesting. I was shaking on the last putt.”

Talley, who won the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 2015 NCAA individual championship, is one of 13 young professionals in the Shoal Creek program, which also includes Alabama graduates Trey Mullinax, 25, who finished tied for ninth in last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills; Robbie Shelton, 22, who played on the 2015 USA Walker Cup Team; and 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Cory Whitsett, 26.

“I talk with a lot of the members and get voicemails from them between tournaments,” said Talley, who has a pair of top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour this year. “Even though I moved out of my apartment a couple of months ago, I have enough friends here that I just send a text message and they’re very welcoming. And Eric [Williamson] is our go-to. He’s the one who keeps us up to date and makes sure we’re cleaning up after ourselves.”

What does the club get out of the program?

“The membership loves having the guys and gals around,” said Williamson, who has been at Shoal Creek for 12 years. “It’s an opportunity for them to use our world-class facilities without paying for anything except what they use. That’s what this club’s about – giving back to the game. No one’s bigger than the game and we feel like it’s important.”

Talley learned about the program through Martha Lang, a longtime member of the USGA Executive Committee and a Shoal Creek member, when Lang served as the USA captain for the 2014 World Amateur Team Championship. Talley was one of three players selected to that team, which finished tied for fifth behind Australia in Karuizawa, Japan.

“I always tell the players when they come into our program that we’re a golf club,” said Williamson. “We have a lot of men and women who love golf and love to talk golf. We want you to interact with them, to ask questions and answer questions. They’re all wonderful about interacting with our members.”

The club sends periodic updates on how its Tour Hopefuls are doing in tournament play.

“It’s a program that the membership is aware of, the membership is proud of, and is very positive about where it’s been and where it’s going,” said Williamson.

Another current female member is Fatima Cano, who was a four-time Sun Belt Conference first-team player at Troy (Ala.) University. Cano, a native of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, worked in the golf shop at Shoal Creek after graduation before she decided to take a shot on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s developmental tour, where she is in her first season.

“I reached out to her coach when she was graduating, and she helped us out tremendously,” said Williamson. “When she wanted to turn professional, some of our members helped her out financially. She’s been a wonderful fit.”

For Talley, it adds another level of support as she competes this week.

“I’m seeing my buddies out here and everyone’s rooting for me,” said Talley after Monday’s practice round. “It’s my first U.S. Women’s Open as a pro, on my home course, and everyone’s got my back.”

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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