Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

June 7, 2014

NRP Bluegrass Junior: Harford eyeing more magic

BELLEFONTE — Haylee Harford knows her last shot at Bellefonte Country Club will be a tough act to follow.

That isn’t stopping the 17-year-old from Leavittsburg, Ohio, from returning to pursue a rare three-peat in the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior.   

Harford rolled in a pressure-packed, 50-foot putt on No. 18 for a one-shot victory in the American Junior Golf Association event.

Now, Harford is trying to become just the second player in the tournament’s 31-year history to go back-to-back-to-back. Leigh Ann Hardin of Martinsville, Ind., won four in a row from 1997-2000 before going on to star at Duke University.

The Bluegrass Junior begins another three-day run on Wednesday. An 18-hole qualifier Monday morning will help finalize the 144-player boys and girls field, which already includes junior golfers from 17 states and China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Canada.

A Members and Volunteers Junior-Am Tournament follows the qualifier.

Tuesday’s schedule begins at 7 a.m. with a practice round. The Junior-Am Fundraising Tournament, set for noon, allows supporters to play golf with one of the juniors.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Charles Howell III, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel are among hundreds of pros who played in AJGA Junior-Ams when they were teenagers. Furyk and Howell passed through Bellefonte.

“Haylee has a favorite group (from Beckley) she plays with in the Junior Am,” said Bluegrass Junior Co-Chairman Jeff Conley. “She seems excited every year she comes here.”

Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the AJGA, will attend the tournament and make a special presentation to Nick Carter at Tuesday night’s Junior-Am dinner and awards reception. Carter, president and chief operations officer of Natural Resource Partners, has actively supported the tournament and will be retiring on Sept. 1. NRP has served as the Bluegrass Junior’s title sponsor since 2004.    

Harford, currently No. 64 in the Polo Golf Rankings, has eight Top 10 finishes in AJGA competition since 2010, with two of her three championships coming at Bellefonte Country Club.

“The course definitely sets up for my game, and I just go out and have fun,” Harford said in a recent interview with AJGA staffer Tim Jackman. “I’m kind of relaxed there and I just play my own game and it all works out pretty well.”

This will be her fourth appearance here. Harford’s first trip resulted in a Top 10 finish. She followed up with winning 54-hole scores of 224 in 2012 and 218 last year.

Harford, who has verbally committed to Furman, said she doesn’t feel any extra pressure to repeat as champion.

“I’m obviously going in determined to get a three-peat, but if I don’t it’s OK and I’ll be grateful to be able to play in the tournament,” she said.

The Bluegrass Junior is one of the longest-running and most popular stops on the AJGA’s sprawling schedule.

“I think it’s a great tournament,” Harford said. “I’m really thankful for all the committee does to run the tournament. They have a ton of support from volunteers and that makes it run with success, so I’m looking forward to it.”

The Bluegrass Junior won the AJGA’s Hospitality Award for 2013, a source of pride for Conley.

“Bellefonte Country Club is all about hospitality,” he said. “Speaking as a member, board member and NRP guy, we like to make everyone feel at home. It reflects on the club and the community,.”

Admission is free and open to the public.

“People have a chance to see some amazing young golfers and enjoy the facility,” Conley said. “Maybe they can come out and take a tour if they are interested in joining.”

ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at rstanley@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2671.

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