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Belle Fourche's Payson Birkeland putts during the first round of the Class A state golf tournament at the Lee Park Golf Course in Aberdeen Monday.

Perhaps the pressure of state tournament golf caused some flutters. Or maybe it was just golf being golf, but for whatever reason, Payson Birkeland started play in the opening round of the 2019 Girls State A Golf Tournament a bit short of defending champion fashion.

Plagued by a balky driver, Birkeland fell four shots off the lead through nine holes of play.

A well-listened, self-talking-to provided the impetus for a turnaround, and the Belle Fourche senior bounced back with a one-over 37 on the back side on the way to a 77 and a share of the lead with Kelsey Heath of Sisseton after the opening round at the Lee Park Golf Course in Aberdeen on Monday.

Lauryn Driscoll (West Central, 78), Lauren Tims (Sioux Falls Christian, 79), Mya Maxwell (Mobridge, 81) and Hot Springs senior Aryanna Watts (82) rounded out the top six while Lady Bison teammate Malory Olstad fired an 87, the 10th best effort of the day.

In the race for the Class A Girls team crown, West Central (351) heads the field followed by a tightly bunched pack of pursuers--Sisseton (366), Parkston (371), Madison (373), and Hot Springs (374). Belle Fourche sits eighth (389) and St. Thomas More 14th (427).

“On the front (nine), I think I was in the trees every single hole except the par threes, I believe and really struggled,” Birkeland said. “But I knew to be competitive tomorrow I had to get my act together on the back nine. Then I started to make putts and better decisions and it led to pretty solid golf coming in (a one-over 37 on the back).

A birdie on No. 10 and another on 13 following a big drive to within 30 yards of the par four, 271-yard hole drew Birkeland even with Driscoll, the early round leader.

“My driver had been left and right all day, and I just got mad at myself and said just hit a drive and fortunately was able to nail one,” said Birkland who made the trip to Aberdeen for the tournament via a weekend stopover in Buffalo to compete in SDHSRA Regional rodeo.

Despite a solid effort on the closing holes, Birkeland felt that she left a few shots out on the course when big drives down the stretch setup excellent birdie opportunities though she was unable to capitalize.

On the par 5 17th, Birkeland failed to get up and down after a drive and fairway wood left her pin-high, right rough after two shots. On 18, another boomer with the big stick ran though the fairway and Birkeland caught a flyer lie in the rough and air-mailed the green.

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“I had a couple of good chances on 17 and 18 especially on 17,” Birkeland said. “I had a short birdie putt that I lipped out and that stung a little bit. And then on 18, I didn’t really check the wind behind me and flew a wedge a little farther than I wanted to and had to scramble to save for bogey."

Nonetheless, Birkeland will go into Tuesday’s final round with a shot a back-to-back state titles. And a chance to erase the stigma of a 2018 medalist honor awarded when event leader, Kate Wynja of Sioux Falls Christian, was disqualified for submitting an incorrect score card.

“I’ve got something to prove this year," she said. “I’m coming in with a chip on my shoulder and really wanted to play well. And so to start off slow like I did and then be able to come back and pick up my game means a lot.”

Watts, followed a similar path to her 82-round overcoming a shaky start and couple of big hiccups in the middle of her round with solid play late to close out the round.

“There were a couple of holes that definitely shouldn’t have happened or I would have placed a lot higher.” Watts said. “I got a triple and two doubles and that really hurt me. But my putting was really good and my short game. My driving that got me into trouble today, but I think I do have a chance if I get rid of all the strokes I gave away today. And top-five for me would be awesome.”

Watts and teammates, 7th place finishers behind team champion Belle Fourche in 2018, have an outside shot at the team title though a second-place trophy would seem a more likely possibility.

“West Central is 20 some strokes ahead of us (23) and realistically are probably out of reach and I don’t see any of their players having a real bad round,” Hot Springs coach Dave Merrill said. “It’s always possible but second is probably more realistic. That’s what we will be shooting for but there is always that chance so I don’t rule it out.

"Malory (Olstad) was frustrated early but came back to shoot her best round this year and I’ve seen Aryanna (Watts) light it up at times so who knows.”

Scores of other Black Hills area competitors by team: Hot Springs - Madilyn Palo (96), Sydney Olstad (109), Jessi Schroder (109); Belle Fourche – Avery Middleton (95), Julia Lange (106), Rylee Young (111), Caitlin Ringling (113); St. Thomas More – Emily Kandolin (92), Katie Conzet (93), Alissa Stephens (118), Megan Lee (124); Lead-Deadwood – Madi Rystrom (106), Raygan Mattson (122); Custer – Rachel Jensen (120).

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.