Rancourt favored to defend

Posted July 24, 2009, at 11:20 p.m.

A lot of Maine’s golf courses have felt the wrath of Mother Nature this summer, but fortunately for the state’s top female amateurs, Augusta Country Club in Manchester is in fine shape.

The 5,800-yard, par-72 layout will play host to the 79th WMSGA championship, starting Monday at 7:30 a.m. and concluding Wednesday.

There are some wet spots around the course, but the fairways and greens are in tip-top shape, according to retiring club pro Pete Hatfield.

“We haven’t had a day this year where we haven’t had wet spots,” he said. “As far as the grass, the conditions are good, the greens are great. I’ve never seen it so lush this time of year, it’s like living in the tropics.”

Defending champion Alexa Rancourt of South Portland is returning, and as the only player in the field with a positive handicap index (plus-one), she’s going to be tough to beat.

“I think certainly — handicap-wise — she is obviously playing better then most people because her handicap is so low,” tourney director Pam Johnson said.

Sisters and perennial contenders Pennie Cummings and Martha White aren’t playing this year, and Johnson said they didn’t sign up.

Rancourt bested Cummings by six shots to win the title last summer.

Potential challengers for Rancourt, who lists her home course as Sable Oaks and attends the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida, include 2007 champ Kristin Kannegiser of Martindale Country Club in Auburn, Whitney Hand of Bucksport GC, Ann Probert of Waterville CC and Kate Merrill out of Toddy Brook in North Yarmouth.

Rancourt, Probert and Merrill will tee off in the lead group at 7:30 Monday morning, leading a field of 84 players while the top three players will comprise the last group in Wednesday’s 18-hole finale, going off just before noontime.

One of a few darkhorse contenders could be Leslie Guenther, who goes off in the fourth group at 7:57, as she played a practice round at Augusta recently and carded a 76, Johnson said.

Others include Debby (Graffman) Gardner, who won three straight titles from 1976-78, also playing in the fourth group, and former UMaine basketball standout Liz Coffin out of Bangor Municipal GC.

While Augusta’s layout may favor long hitters such as Rancourt, keeping the ball in the fairway will be pivotal to low scoring.

“Under these conditions you don’t want to hit it off the fairway,” Hatfield said. “The rough is thick. If they hit it in the rough, they’re not going to have a great shot at the green.”

A good short game will also be pivotal with a number of short, bunker-protected greens. Hatfield said key holes could be the first and third, both par 4s, the par-3 second and consecutive par 5s on four and five on the front nine plus 10 and 11, both lengthy par 4s, along the back.

Especially since given all the rain, the 5,800-yard layout could feel like a lot more.

“It’s going to play wet, the ball’s not going to run out and roll, and a lot of holes they will be hitting uphill,” Hatfield said. “It plays a lot longer than the yardage indicates, I think.”

While Hatfield’s crew has done a tremendous job keeping the course in prime condition, there wasn’t much they could do as Friday’s rains soaked the grounds.

“They’ve been out straight, they can only do so much, they couldn’t get out there [Friday] to mow,” he said.

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