FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Casey Danielson was all smiles Wednesday in the clubhouse at the Ross Course at the French Lick Resort. She’d just helped her team shoot 16-under in the pro-am for the Donald Ross Classic at French Lick, a Symetra Tour event held at the sprawling resort.
Her team included Steve Ferguson, chairman of the Cook Group, which owns the resort. It was Ferguson who’d led the restoration of two historic hotels, the addition of a casino and the hiring of Pete Dye to build a second course, which turned the sleepy little town in southern Indiana into one of the hottest destinations in the Midwest.
It never hurts to make a good impression on someone like that.
More importantly, Danielson felt good about her game. The 26-year-old from Osceola, Wis., had won the Symetra Classic in May, her first victory on the LPGA’s developmental tour, and despite three missed cuts in the weeks that followed, she was in a positive frame of mind.
“I feel like it’s still in there,” she said in a wide-ranging interview with Wisconsin.Golf. “I just have to put a few things together. It feels like any week could be my week. It’s just golf. Sometimes, little things fall apart and then you put them back together. If the week is right, you could end up on top.”
Talk about prophetic. On Saturday, three days after that declaration, Danielson fired a final-round 3-under 68 to win the tournament and its $37,500 first prize.
“I know. Isn’t that crazy?” Danielson said, recalling her words from earlier in the week as she drove to Indianapolis to catch a flight for Rochester, N.Y., and the next tournament, the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic.
The victory pushed Danielson’s season earnings to $77,034 and moved her to No. 1 on the 2021 Volvik Race for the Card. The top 10 on the money list at the end of the season will earn exempt status on the LPGA Tour in 2022. After finishing 35th, 23rd and 18th in her first three seasons on the Symetra Tour, she is tantalizingly close to realizing her lifelong dream.
“I’m trying, honestly, to not think about it too much,” she said. “Stay present. Like this week, stay present and let it happen and let my game speak for itself and not try to force anything or get too high of expectations or think too much about it.”
Danielson, a four-time WIAA state champion who helped Stanford University to an NCAA title, has the game to compete at the highest level. Physically and technically, it’s all there. The hard part has been letting go of expectations, achieving balance on and off the course, staying in the present and, in her words, “not care so much.” She has been working with Dallas-based performance coach Deborah Graham.
“That’s been a really big focus for me, especially in the last year,” Danielson said. “That has definitely helped me, in the times where I’ve been playing better, to maintain a certain attitude. And no matter what way the ball falls, to just be grateful and enjoy what I’m doing.
“That’s been very helpful and makes it a lot more fun and a lot more enjoyable. Because you’re out here so much, you practice so much, you can’t put pressure on yourself all the time. I know I definitely play better in a more carefree mindset. It’s just hard to get there when you care so much.”
On Saturday, she was able to put those lessons to work, though it wasn’t easy. She went into the final round one stroke off the lead, fought her way to the top of the leaderboard and then held on, parring the final four holes after a bogey on No. 14.
She finished at 10-under 203 in the 54-hole tournament, one stroke ahead of Beth Wu (68) and two ahead of second-round leader Rachel Rohanna, who birdied the first two holes but played the final 13 in 2-over and shot a 71.
“It was really hard, honestly,” Danielson said. “All day, it was just a mental battle of stay present, stay present, stay present. I would shut my eyes, take a deep breath and try and let go of any expectation or forward thinking and just try to enjoy the moment and make the best swing, the best stroke possible. From the first tee to the last putt, it was a grind to do that all day.
“I think that that’s just all the mental work I’ve been doing the last year or so really paying off. You still feel the nerves, but you can handle them a little better.”
Danielson birdied Nos. 2 and 5 but bogeyed No. 7. Her big move came on the par-4 11th and 12th holes, where she went eagle-birdie.
“That was really fun,” she said of the eagle. “They put the tees way up and made it drivable. It was 226 yards to the pin but it was straight uphill; it was plus-14 up the slope (so the hole played 240). I was able to hit driver because I knew long would be a good miss. I just happened to hit the perfect shot. It landed on the perfect spot, caught the slope on the back of the green and it took it up and back to about 4 feet. Then I made the putt.”
She followed with a 28-footer for birdie on No. 12, then got up and down from a greenside bunker on the par-3 13th, rolling in a 7-footer. At that point, Danielson sensed she was in the lead.
“I was playing with Rachel Rohanna, who was also up there, so I knew where she was at,” she said. “She kind of fell back a couple. And I knew from my glances at the leaderboard that there were a couple of players that kind of got a little hot. Like Bailey Tardy, I saw her name was up there, and Bryn Walker, I saw her name pop up there (both finished T-10).
“And so, I knew there was a chance that somebody could have a really hot round and that it could be pretty tight. But I didn’t look at it closely, so I didn’t know exactly where I stood.”
She kept her head down, focused on one shot at a time and let the leaderboard sort itself out. When it did, her name was on top.
“I know that my game is really strong and I have a lot of confidence in my game,” she said. “It’s my mental game that I’ve got to keep sharp. The more I play golf and I do this, the more I realize that, for me, that’s what makes or breaks it. So, I’m going to continue working on that.
“Any week could be my week, because I know my game is there. It’s just if I can get in the right mindset, feel the right things and then obviously you need a few things to go your way – a couple long putts to go in or the right bounces, that sort of thing. It takes that to win. Something’s got to work in your favor. But I know it’s there if I just get the right mindset.”
After the tournament in Rochester, Danielson plans to take a two-week break before the final stretch of six tournaments culminating in the Symetra Tour Championship, Oct. 7-10 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“Honestly, at this point in the season, anything can happen, you know?” she said. “I try not to look at it too much. It’s one of those things, one of those expectations, so I try not to focus on it too much because there is so much golf left and you never know what’s going to happen.
“That’s the great thing about this sport. You can miss (the cut) 10 times in a row and then win a tournament. You never know.”
But sometimes, you have a pretty good idea.