PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – It’s difficult for Smith Knaffle to put a number on recent distance gains. This week in wet conditions, it’s all carry at Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, a course that, as a Myrtle Beach area local, Knaffle knows relatively well.
Knaffle, the South Carolina sophomore who has a one-shot lead at the Golfweek Caledonia Amateur, made six birdies and a single bogey in a second-round 5-under 66 that moved her into the lead. She’s a shot ahead of Alabama sophomore Caroline Curtis.
It’s been awhile since Knaffle entered the final round of a tournament in the lead.
“Just with college golf and everything, trying to gain a spot in the top 5,” she said. “I just haven’t really played my best the last year or two. I’m happy to be playing more golf that’s like myself.”
Knaffle shares a swing coach with recent FedEx Cup champion Dustin Johnson. She works with area teacher Allen Terrell, who runs the Dustin Johnson Golf School in Myrtle Beach. She’ll get a lesson as often as possible when she’s home, but says it depends what the two work on. One constant has been the pursuit of distance.
Scores: Golfweek Caledonia Amateur
“We’re always working on trying to get shaft lean at impact and just hit it as far as possible,” she said. “That’s always kind of the main goal, to hit it as far and as straight as possible. We try a lot of different things to accomplish the same goal.”
While she can’t put a number on that progress, Knaffle feels she has hit it more solid, straighter and gotten a little longer in every aspect of her game. She has hit 3-woods and drivers this week on a saturated Caledonia layout that endured upwards of 10 inches of rain days before the tournament started.
This individual event is certainly a different start to the season for the sophomore, who competed three times with the team in her debut season – one cut short by COVID. The SEC players in the field will get to compete with their teams later this fall in three events. The first one of those will happen next month at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, site of the 2019 NCAA Championship.
A good showing here would go a long way in getting Knaffle’s year started on the right foot.
“I just came to play, I didn’t really have anything set in mind,” she said of what she wanted to get out of this week. “Just to come out here and do the best I can.”
Curtis, the Alabama player, is thinking of this week as a nice tune-up. There are four Crimson Tide players in the field. Next weekend, they begin qualifying for the season.
“We’re just trying to keep playing, stay competitive,” said Curtis, who hasn’t had a bogey yet in rounds of 69-68. “I know for me, and I think for my teammates too, the best kind of practice is in tournaments and being able to play against other people and just see how your game lines up with everything else.”
Curtis is aiming to keep her game plan intact in the final round as she chases a title. She wanted to see where her game was when she entered this tournament. A win would be a good indicator.
For Curtis, potential obstacles might come in the form of ACC chasers. Virginia Tech’s Emily Mahar and Louisville’s Lauren Hartlage, plus East Carolina Riley Hamilton, are among the trio a stroke back in third. Mahar’s third-round 67 was bogey-free, and ended with a birdie on a difficult par-4 closing hole over water.
Mahar’s last tournament came a month ago when she competed in the VSGA Stroke Play. A runner-up finish there came on the heels of a trip to the Round of 32 at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the Round of 16 at the North & South Women’s Amateur.
She doesn’t find herself itching to compete but is trying to take this opportunity to work on her game and get stronger. The gaps in competition have brought an unexpected change in mindset – one that Mahar thinks has been beneficial.
“I think the best thing to come out of this was how my mental game has improved. We don’t get many opportunities to play now, so being able to appreciate the time we can play has helped stay in the moment and not think ahead, like I’ll just play next week it’s no big deal. Right now, I don’t know when my next tournament is going to be.”