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Saturday, April 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Craig Smith
Think of Washington State University athletes and you think of famous quarterbacks, major-league baseball players and Olympic track athletes.
Elite women golfers? Huh? Sorry, look elsewhere. The tank has been pretty empty since future LPGA player Jo Ann Washam played there in the early 1970s. Until now.
Kim Welch, a junior from Sacramento, is one of the country's best collegiate golfers and she wears crimson and gray.
Welch has won five of six tournaments the Cougars have played this spring and leads the nation in victories. She goes for triumph No. 6 Monday in the toughest tournament to date when the Pac-10 Championships begin at the Saticoy Country Club in Somis, Calif., north of Los Angeles.
Welch is ranked No. 8 nationally by Golfstat and has been named player of the week by GolfWorld and GolfWeek after victories this season. The fluid 5-foot-6 athlete, who is long off the tee, is tied for the national lead in par-5 scoring (4.65 strokes).
Welch doesn't fit the mold of national-class collegiate women's golfers. She didn't grow up as a country-club kid and didn't spend her teenage summers traveling the country in national junior-golf tournaments. The Northern California prep golf champion also played other sports. She was on the varsity basketball team and played club soccer in high school.
Rather than pound balls year-round, Welch takes a break in the winter and probably stays fresher because of it. And while a lot of golfers avoid caffeine when they compete, Welch likes to carry a latte down the first fairway of a competitive round.
Welch chose WSU over San Jose State. Traditional golf powers such as Arizona State and Duke weren't interested in her.
"I came up here on a random recruiting trip and just loved the atmosphere and the people," she said in a telephone interview.
While Pullman doesn't pretend to be a golf paradise, it isn't devoid of facilities. The campus driving range, where varsity players always get to hit off grass, is a convenient 10-minute walk from one of Welch's classrooms. The WSU nine-hole campus course is nothing special but the University of Idaho seven miles away has a solid 18-hole layout. Courses in Clarkston and Lewiston 25 miles away are playable almost year-round because they are at a much lower altitude.
Welch, who has LPGA Tour aspirations, led the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament appearance last season and a No. 23 team finish, an accomplishment all the more satisfying because the rival Washington Huskies stayed home.
Although Welch considers driving to be the strongest part of her game, she is pleased now to be able to consider her short game a strength. But it's the tee box where she draws the most attention.
Although she weighs only about 130 pounds, she can launch drives of 290 yards, according to her coach.
How does she do it?
"How does Pedro Martinez throw as hard as he does?" asked Williams rhetorically, referring to the Boston pitcher. "Kim isn't supposed to hit as far, and Martinez isn't supposed to throw as fast, but they both do it."
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