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Symetra packed at the top

Dennis Grall photo Casey Danielson of Osceola, Wis. blasts the ball out of the bunker on No. 7 at Sweetgrass Golf Club Friday during the opening round of the Symetra tournament. She bogied the hole and is one of 11 players who shot 3-under-par 69.

HARRIS — Every golfer at the Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass has the same goal in mind, but only the eventual winner can talk about it later.

Eighty women in the 144-player field shot even-par or better entering Friday, which will make for one hellacious shootout in this three-day event. Even par is the projected cut.

Three former champions played in Friday’s opening round of the 10th edition of this Symetra Tour event, and they all agreed their triumph played a critical role in their development.

Kim Kaufman, the 2013 champion, said, “I was so naive. That first win gave me so much confidence and a belief in myself. I hope I can find that belief again.”

The Clark, S.D. native made it to the LPGA Tour with that victory the springboard. That is the goal of each player in this weekend’s field, but now Kaufman is trying to get back to that top level. “I had four-five really good years, but that confidence really goes fast,” she said, adding she was in the top 60 money list every year.

Dennis Grall photo Paul Schrader of Escanaba, left, chats with defending champion Daniela Iacobelli on the fifth green at Sweetgrass Golf Club. Schrader has served as her caddy for several years.

But she discovered, “If you’re not playing well, you’re just treading water. On the LPGA, you need your A-game. Here it is just a little less competitive. If you play well (here) then you move on.”

Kaufman will have to elevate her game today just to make the cut for Sunday’s final round of the top 60 scores and ties. She posted a 1-over-par-73.

Maude-Aimee Leblanc of Sherbrooke, Quebec and Karen Chung of Livingston, N.J. share the top of a tremendously crowded leader board at minus-7. Kristin Coleman of Rolling Hills Estate, Calif. had the initial lead at minus-6. Four players are at minus-5, another four are tied at minus-4 and yet another 21 are tied at minus-2, including 2018 winner Ruixin Liu of Guangdong, China.

Daniela Iacobelli, a Michigan native who now lives in Melbourne, Fla., is hoping to repeat after the COVD-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 event. However, she also must reverse course today after shooting 1-over-par-73.

“It was special (to win here). I have always loved this course since I first got here 10 years ago,” Iacobelli said.

Iacobelli, who has two other Symetra victories, noted, “I always feel like I am a fan favorite out here,” agreeing that having Escanaba golf veteran Paul Schrader as her caddy adds to that love affair.

“Any time you win, you keep solidifying your dream. That is very rewarding,” she said with a smile sprouting on her sun-tanned face. “It is always a confidence booster. It lets you know you are doing it the right way. It is a great feeling to know you are capable.”

Iacobelli took the 2019 title on the first hole of a playoff, beating Cindy Ha, to make that victory even more special.

“That is just part of the happiness,” she said. “That was a very proud moment.”

Liu, who won the 2018 event, posted a 2-under-70 Friday that gives her a good chance at another crown.

“That first win felt like an engine started,” Liu said. “That was a comfortable boost for me.”

Liu leads the Race For The (LPGA) Card with two tourney titles this season.

“I’m not worried about being No. 1. As long as I’m in the top 10 (to reach the LPGA), I’m good,” she said. “I’m not worried about (being) No. 1 because that can drive you crazy. You have to play one shot at a time.

“I know most of the course pretty well. My putting needs to be better, but I love this course.”

Coleman took the early lead, getting as low as minus-7.

“I was pretty solid. I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens,” Coleman said, adding you cannot be too aggressive on the greens. “My driver is always steady; my iron play was better than normal.”

Like most of the leader board, Coleman played before the wind strengthened around 1 p.m. and impacted the afternoon players. Iacobelli said the wind came from “different directions. Every hole there was a little more guesswork.”

Casey Danielson, who won her first Symetra event recently in North Carolina, “played really steady” in her third appearance here. “I was striking the ball well, and I was in (good) position for a lot of birdie looks.”

She is one of 11 players who shot 3-under-69.

“It will probably take a crazy-low round to win it,” said Danielson, a native of Osceola, Wis., who helped Stanford win the 2015 NCAA women’s title.

Two of the 13 players who finished 1-under-71 are Kelly Whaley and Theresa Toscano.

Whaley is the daughter of Suzy Whaley, who was the first female president of the PGA Tour and once played in a men’s PGA tournament.

She carried Kelly’s golf bag.

Toscano is a recent graduate of South Dakota State University, where Perkins native Casey VanDamme is the director of golf. SDSU assistant coach Maggie Murphy is her caddy.

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