U.S. Women's Open: Billings' Spalding in right frame of mind for Open
Annika Sorenstam watches her tee shot on the second hole during a practice round for the U.S. Women's Open, which begins Thursday at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. Sorenstam is the favorite to win her third U.S. Open after winning four straight tournaments earlier this season.
Photo by CHUCK BURTON/Associated Press

Before joining golf's center stage this week at the U.S. Women's Open, Leslie Spalding returned home to attend her sister Paige's wedding in Red Lodge and take part in a photo shoot at The Briarwood golf course in Billings.

Spalding, a 32-year-old professional golfer from Billings, is going to be a cover story in the next edition of the new Yellowstone Valley Woman magazine.

During an idyllic morning on The Briarwood's scenic back nine, she showed off her fluid swing on the tee box. She putted and chipped and even ducked into the woods to make a quick clothing change.

Spalding had to laugh when a photographer jokingly suggested she switch her swing from right-handed to left-handed because the lighting and scenery would be much better from that angle.

"I was a photographer in high school," she said, after showing remarkable patience during the 1Þ-hour session. "I remember having to shoot the same thing (a group of basketball players) three times. I was awful. I think (the teacher) kicked me out of class."

While her photography career stalled at an early age, Spalding - after a two-year absence - is clearly back in the picture when it comes to the 56th Women' s Open. She will be one of 150 players in the field Thursday during first-round play at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.

This is the richest, most-coveted tournament for women's golf, with $2.9 million in prize money. First place is worth $520,000 - and with such a promising payoff, there is no problem with focus.

"I want to win it," said Spalding, who teed off at 6:10 a.m. (Mountain time) Thursday. "I've been working with a sports psychologist. He told me you can decide to set yourself back and just be comfortable where you are. … So I'm trying a new attitude of why wouldn't I be able to win it?

"There's no reason," she added. "I'm going to try to win it."

In ridding herself of any mental barriers, Spalding - who survived a gut-wrenching sectional qualifier in Tennessee on May 14 by shooting a 3-under 68 - is appearing in the U.S. Open for the fourth time since 1995. She is one of 87 players to advance through qualifying.

"I'm just going to be so excited to be there because I just love the Open," said Spalding, a former "range girl" and golf club cleaner at The Briarwood. "The first trip (in 1995) was quite a different story because I was just in awe of everything. I was in awe of the 150th person who played on the tour - and now I'm not. I want to beat them."

On her last Open visit in 1998, she placed in a five-way tie for 36th place in Kohler, Wis. Spalding - the early clubhouse leader at one point in the opening round - wound up tied for second during the first round after opening with a 2-under 69.

"It's by far our biggest purse, so that's one thing," Spalding said of the exhilaration surrounding the Open. "It's also the championship that I most want to win. You can' t win unless you get there."

Spalding, refreshed by the quick trip home, enters the Open ranked 62nd on this season's Ladies Professional Golf Tour's money list with $56,404 in winnings through 11 events. A regular on the LPGA tour since 1996, Spalding's career earnings are approaching $350,000.

More importantly, heading into Thursday's opening round, Spalding felt she had found her groove.

"My putting has been good and my chipping has been really good," she said. "I've been hitting my driver really straight, and that's what you need. … The gist of everything is you just have to go play, trust that the game will be there and forget about everything else."

Prior to this week's practice sessions, Spalding said she wasn't very familiar with the par-70, 6,256-yard Pine Needles layout.

"I haven't played the course, but usually the USGA sets it up so 5-under-par wins it," she said. "So, it's pretty high scores, just a lot of grinding, making pars and not making any big mistakes."

The Open course is usually longer than the LPGA spreads, Spalding said, and the pin placements are unpredictable.

"They try to make it real tough," she said.

Spalding views Annika Sorenstam, the 1995 and 1996 Open champion and the tour's leading player this season with five wins and $1,013,890 in earnings, as the odds-on favorite.

"She's just so consistent," Spalding said. "She went on a new workout regimen. She does like 750 sit-ups a night. She's just a machine. She's probably the most fit person out there."

While Spalding isn't a slouch when it comes to physical fitness, she isn't ready to do 750 sit-ups per night.

"Maybe a few less than that," she said with a laugh. "I don't see the difference between doing 350 or 750 sit-ups a night."

In addition to Sorenstam, who won the 1996 Open at Pine Needles, Spalding likes Pat Hurst's chances and, of course, Juli Inkster's.

As for her own shot at winning? "My attitude in 1995 was to not finish last, and I finished second to last," Spalding recalled with a laugh. "You've got to visualize things. Now my expectations are much higher. I would love to win it, but I would be happy with a Top 10."

Spalding said the biggest difference between her first trip to the U.S. Open and this week's appearance is her own heightened expectations.

"The attitude was always good, it's just that the belief wasn't always there. I think now I'm kind of changing that," she said.

Does Spalding ever daydream about walking up No. 18 on the final day at the U.S. Open holding an insurmountable lead?

"Sure, you have to visualize," she said. "The more you visualize it, the more it will come true. So yeah, I visualize that trophy. Walking up 18 would be awesome … knowing I had it in the bag."

Bill Bighaus is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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