Back In The Swing Of Things?

FAYETTEVILLE -These are heady times for third-year Arkansas women's golf coach Kelley Hester.

The Lady Razorbacks, ranked 25th by Golf World Magazine before their sixth-place finish in the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Knoxville, Tenn., last weekend, will host their seventh annual invitational tournament at Pinnacle in Rogers, Sunday through Tuesday.

It's a timely showcase for UA junior Amanda McCurdy, the current U.S. Women's Amateur runner-up who battled into a playoff in last year's Lady Razorback Invitational before settling for second place.

"Amanda loves to play in front of crowds," Hester said. "There were thousands at the Women's Amateur."

Galleries have increased each year of the Lady'Back Invitational, particularly the past two under Hester when Arkansas won its own event.

"We've got a good field this year," Hester said. "Missouri has been ranked as high as sixth or seventh, and we also have Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas A&M and Nebraska coming."

Missouri is ranked 18th by Golf World, while Texas A&M is just behind Arkansas at No. 26. Michigan is 27th and Notre Dame is 31st.

Other teams scheduled to compete at Pinnacle include Alabama, Augusta State, Illinois State, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Ole Miss, Oral Roberts, Southern Miss, Southwest Missouri State, Texas-El Paso, Western Michigan and Wisconsin.

Arkansas must be at its best to win, but Hester is confident.

"We play with a lot of intensity at home," she said.

The Lady Razorbacks led after one round in Knoxville on a course they hadn't played before. But they had an indifferent second round and got too far behind to contend on Sunday.

"We don't yet play with the kind of intensity on the road that you'll see at home," Hester said. "Part of that is we're still young, and we're not settled at the fifth spot."

Stacy Lewis, the freshman from The Woodlands, Texas, who was the star of Arkansas' first two tournaments this season, didn't play quite as well in Knoxville (15-over-par 226), while teammates Gena Johnson (223) and McCurdy (223) couldn't sustain their even-par 71 starts.

"Amanda played her last seven holes in six over par to close with a 78," Hester said. "She's at her best when she's in contention to win, but she can struggle after she's out of contention."

Arkansas junior Courtney Mahon, who shot 73-79-76 for 228 in Knoxville, is still ironing out the kinks of a swing change she began late last season.

"Courtney will always be a technical player, but she's making improvements," Hester said.

The Cherokee Country Club course Arkansas played last week is a Donald Ross design, complete with those inverted-saucer greens that can bedevil any golfer.

"We struggled on the greens all the way around," Hester said.

The fact that Arkansas has been ranked as high as 21st despite individual inconsistencies is encouraging to Hester.

"Nobody has played her best," she said. "And I kind of like that in the fall. Last year we played great in the fall, and it was like, 'How are we going to top this?'"

Arkansas' fifth-place Southeastern Conference finish in 1999 is still its best in nine tries since the school began the women's golf program.

But the Lady'Backs' 898 total in last year's Lady Razorback Invitational was its best ever.

More help is on the way. Arkansas has a commitment from a top player in Oklahoma for next season, and there are some excellent eighth- and ninth-graders in Arkansas.

One of those, freshman Elizabeth Wells of El Dorado, stole the show in Tuesday's Class AAAAA Girls Championship at Fayetteville Country Club by nabbing medalist honors with a 75 on a cold day and then making a clutch 14-foot putt to help her team win a playoff over Fayetteville High.

Yes, Hester was in attendance.

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