Aspen’s Walla qualifies for U.S. Women’s Amateur | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s Walla qualifies for U.S. Women’s Amateur

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Call it a test.

Golfer Kristin Walla graduated from the University of Texas last year and was pondering her next move, likely a trip to Q-School in the hopes of both turning pro and earning a spot on the Futures Tour. Before taking that leap, however, she decided to take a step back.

She returned to Aspen and, while her clubs collected dust in the garage, worked as a ski instructor last winter. She did not hit a golf ball from November to April – the longest stretch since her senior year of high school, when Walla was holed up with a knee injury.

“I just wanted to see if I missed it, see if I was ready to let it go. … I really felt like I was ready to do something else,” the 23-year-old Aspen High School alum admitted Thursday. “I always figured I’d graduate, then give it a shot and grind it out on the Futures Tour. Some people do that and lose their love of the game. I don’t want to ever lose that.

“I really had something burning still. I pretty much figured that out once the grass was visible again.”

Walla returned to competition in May for the first time in nearly a year. Unfazed by a string of lackluster performances, she broke through last week, carding a 4-over-par round of 75 to share medalist honors with two others at a U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier in Denver.

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The effort helped her secure a spot in the field at Aug. 9-16’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at Charlotte Country Club in North Carolina. The appearance will be her first.

“This was a big focus for me this summer,” said Walla, the Colorado Women’s Golf Association’s match-play champion in 2008.

“In a lot of ways, I think I’m playing the best golf I’ve ever played.”

The Amateur was hardly on Walla’s radar when she received a chance phone call earlier this year. Aspen High head girls golf coach Alden Richards contacted Walla to gauge her interest in being an assistant for the spring season.

She agreed. Soon after, on a trip to a tournament in Grand Junction, Walla finally picked up a club again.

It was a seminal moment.

“After that, I just realized I missed it. … I liked being known as a golfer, and I didn’t want to let that go,” she said. “I started thinking about [playing] more.”

She did just that.

In late May, she entered a U.S. Open qualifier in Colorado Springs; Walla was disqualified for using an unapproved yardage-measuring device, which was legal at the college ranks.

Two days later, she “didn’t play great” and missed the cut at the Colorado Open.

Walla’s play took an encouraging turn soon after, however, at the Texas Women’s Open in June. She entered the tournament on a whim – she happened to be in Texas attending a friend’s wedding – and wound up finishing ninth overall and third among amateurs. She shot even par during the final round.

“I was making putts and making birdies. That’s a good indicator,” Walla said. “Now, it’s just a matter of trusting my swing, which is a problem when not playing enough.”

Her solid play continued in last week’s qualifier at Green Gables Country Club. Walla said she hit just six greens in regulation, but she salvaged the round with a solid short game.

“I was conservative, trying to keep the big numbers away and not three-putt,” Walla said. “When you play golf, there’s the game of golf but also the game of what tournament you’re playing. When you’re playing the U.S. Amateur qualifier, you know you don’t have to shoot 67, you just have to make sure you don’t shoot 78. You kind of strategize differently.”

The strategy paid off. Now, Walla will take aim at a title in North Carolina.

The match-play event likely will be one of her last as an amateur; Walla tentatively plans to turn pro this fall, when she’ll begin work as an instructor in La Quinta, Calif. If all goes according to plan, she will be playing on the Futures Tour in 2011.

For now, though, Walla is savoring her time back on the course and preparing for her next challenge.

“I really don’t have expectations [for the U.S. Women’s Amateur]. I just want to take it one day at a time, one match at a time and just walk away knowing I gave it my best shot,” she said. “Having that huge trophy in my hands would be nice, too.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com