SOUTH GLENS FALLS — Fresh from winning her third career PWBA title at the Long Island Classic last week, Rotterdam native Liz Kuhlkin has renewed confidence heading into the prestigious U.S. Women’s Open Thursday night through Tuesday at Kingpin’s Alley Family Fun Center.
Kuhlkin already knows what it feels like to win the U.S. Women’s Open. She conquered the sport’s most grueling test in 2018 in Orlando, Florida. But despite solid statistics, she hadn’t won another tour title until last week in Rockville Centre.
“I hadn’t won in a long time, and mentally that does a lot for an athlete to win and show you can still do it,” said Kuhlkin after the first portion of Wednesday’s practice session. “I have faith in my ability, but you want to see it on paper. I’m glad I won going into this event.”
Kuhlkin believes she has a couple of advantages over the rest of the field, as many of the bowlers competed in all three tournaments on Long Island in the same week, which totaled more than 70 games. Kuhlkin went home early.
“Honestly, I made out pretty good last week. I won a title, won $10,000 and then got a chance to go home and relax,” she explained. “Some of the girls are having thumb issues and body aches because they bowled more than 70 games last week. I feel lucky. I won, I celebrated a bit and then I got to go back home and unwind.”
She also has a sort of home-field advantage living less than an hour away from Kingpin’s Alley Family Center and competing in numerous events there over the years. But that can be a double-edged sword.
“I was nervous last year, and it showed in my first block,” said the former Schalmont High School and University of Nebraska standout. “There were a lot of people here, and there will be a lot of people here this week. It’s hard to put that in the back of your mind. People are coming to watch you, and you don’t want to stink it up. But I’ve bowled in this house more than the other girls. I just won, and I’m on a momentum kick. If my nerves settle early, I’ll be OK.”
Kuhlkin usually responds to being center stage. She still owns the national women’s record for highest triple with a Schenectady USBC-record 890. She’s a former national high average winner who also was the collegiate bowler of the year and a national champion for the Cornhuskers. Her resume includes a handful of medals on Team USA, a couple of PWBA regional wins, three NY Queens crowns and a Donato Scratch Singles title, just to name a few major triumphs.
“I feel like ability-wise, I’ve been there the last couple of years,” she said. “It’s not a question of performing. I know I can bowl with these girls. It’s about executing the entire time. The key for me is to stay on top of the transition and avoid the bad games. Every pin matters. The key is knowing I came through last week and got the job done. I’ve got to keep my head on my shoulders.”
Meanwhile, Suzie Morine, the daughter of Columbia High School bowling coach and Section II bowling co-coordinator Bill Neumann, is the only other Capital Region competitor in the 91-player field.
She said that despite some obvious obstacles, she couldn’t turn down a chance to bowl in the U.S. Women’s Open.
“How often is this [tournament] in your backyard? I don’t travel a lot. I’ve got two kids, a 4-month-old and a 5-year-old. This will be a learning experience for me,” Morine said. “It took me a while to get in shape after having a baby. I’ve been working hard, and I’m working my way up in terms of how many games I’ve bowled. I don’t remember ever bowling 24 games in three days.”
Morine has a solid resume. She’s bowled well in regional play and is currently in first place in the USBC Women’s doubles.
“If we win, it would be my second eagle [USBC title] in two years. I won the team event with Liz [Kuhlkin] last year. I wish I could put the time in to go out on tour, but with my job and my family, I can’t do it,” she said.
Morine has been texting Revolutions Pro Shop proprietor Brian LeClair to get some information on what equipment to use this week.
“I get nervous every time I bowl. My brother, my husband and my father tell me to relax and that I can do it, but these women out here are very good,” she said. “My goal is to finish in the middle of the pack. I would love to make the cut, but a good goal would be to be in the middle of the pack. I don’t want to finish last.”
Many of the favorites this week are veterans with tons of experience.
“The U.S. Open is always a grind,” said Shannon O’Keefe, who has 15 career PWBA titles, including three majors. She was the 2018 and 2019 PWBA Player of the Year and is an 18-time member of Team USA. “It’s one of my favorites because it is a grind. But it may be a picnic compared to last week, when I bowled 74 games. Having this tournament back-to-back will show me how tough I am.”
O’Keefe finished second here last year in the PWBA Albany Open to Kelly Kulick, who is not here this week because she is coaching Team USA.
“I think any veteran player in long, grueling formats may have an advantage,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve done it, and we know what it takes. Patience is the key. I was second here last year, and I’ve got some good vibes going in. Being mentally tough is important. Those who are super mentally tough will be able to prevail at the end of the week.”
Liz Johnson of Niagara Falls has 25 PWBA titles, including five U.S. Opens and 10 majors overall.
“You’ve just got to be patient. It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Johnson said. “You could mentally fall out after the first day, but you’ve got to be patient every game and every shot. If you stumble the first day, you still have a lot more games.
“The U.S. Open is supposed to be the hardest. That’s the reason we bowl so many games. The reason why the U.S. Open is so prestigious is because it’s the hardest tournament of the year. I’m looking forward to this week, and I want to make a good showing.”
Defending champion Josie Barnes, the associate head women’s bowling coach at Vanderbilt University, has four PWBA titles overall. She doesn’t feel any added pressure to repeat.
“I don’t think there is a target on my back. When you look on the wall of champions, there aren’t many people who have repeated,” she said. “I’m a college coach, so I preach a lot of lessons. One is there is nothing to defend. At the end of the day, I could finish dead-last and I’ll still be a U.S. Open champion Nobody can take that away. I’m going to try to keep that mindset.”
The grueling format includes eight games of qualifying Thursday, Friday and Saturday before a cut to the top 36 bowlers for another qualifying round Sunday morning. Four different oil patterns will be used during the qualifying rounds. The field is then cut again to the top 24 for match play that begins Sunday afternoon and continues with eight more games of match play Monday morning and eight more games of match play Monday night to determine the top five for Tuesday night’s stepladder finals.
The total prize fund is $254,250, with the winner earning $60,000 and the runner-up taking home $30,000.
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected].