Kim Welch has a surprising knack for hitting a golf ball long and straight. The rest of her game isn’t bad either. She finished fifth in the 2003 NCAA Women’s Golf Championship, two strokes back of the winner in a field of 140 golfers. And she was only a sophomore in her first national tournament.

Welch’s ability to distance the ball from the tee seems to defy the law of physics. She carries 135 pounds on a lean five-foot-six frame. Not the imposing physical stature of a power hitter. Still she can drive a ball 300 yards on occasion. Her average is 290 yards, according to Walt Williams. The Washington State University golf coach surrenders 15 yards on his drive to his team captain.

“Kim can generate club speed like no one else,” he says. “She’s probably the longest hitter in women’s collegiate golf.”

How does she do it?

The polite Texan slowly nods his head from side to side searching for an answer. “I hate to use the term ‘freak of nature,'” he responds. “It’s almost a ‘Tiger-esque’ swing.” His reference is to another of golf’s long hitters.

When Welch addresses the ball with her driver, she positions her feet approximately a yard apart, and her hands far from her body. She swings her club back in a wide arc, then quickly forward. Her hip rotation through the swing is very fast. The dimpled ball seems to explode off the clubface.

Her tremendous length off the tee shortens the rest of her game. “Hitting a sand wedge into a par four is a huge advantage over using a six iron,” she says. She finds the par fives fun. That’s where she tries to make up strokes or extend a lead. “I’ve never been a player to shoot 15 pars in a round. I’m not that consistent.” A round of 72 more likely would include four bogeys, four birdies.

Welch’s game is more than one-dimensional. She strikes her irons well, but sees room for improvement. She’s trying to perfect a 50-yard lob she can add to her arsenal. During her freshman year, Williams suggested she experiment with a cross-handed putting grip. She’s comfortable with it now, and her putts are truer.

Mentally she doesn’t get too high on good shots, too low on bad ones. She will carry on a conversation with other golfers on the course. But when it comes to analyzing and executing her shots, she’s all business.

“She’s a fabulous competitor,” Williams says.

In an interview with Washington State Magazine last fall, Welch seemed at ease, smiled frequently, and twisted a fistful of long back hair that she parts in the middle. She’s majoring in psychology and is on track to graduate in May 2005. Graduate school and professional golf are future considerations.

“There are many things in life that are more important than golf. I just have fun with it,” she says. “Golf will always be there for me. I try not to get too far ahead of myself [in looking ahead].”

Like three older brothers and an older sister, Kim began playing golf when she was seven in Sacramento’s summer “Little Linksters” program. Her parents encouraged their five children to stay with the game at least until they were 12. By that time, Kim developed a fondness for golf, excelled, and decided to continue. This pleased her dad, Pete, a “golf nut,” who works for the Post Office. He was known to play as many as 54 holes at one time with his brother “and loved it,” Kim says. Her mother, Kazuko, is employed by the state Finance Tax Board.

WSU’s first All-America female golfer began attracting national recognition as early as her freshman season following victories at the University of Idaho and the University of Oregon. In 14 events as a sophomore, she placed in the top 10 nine times, in the top 25 twelve times.

During her career, she’s averaged 75.4 strokes per round. Last March she successfully defended her Duck Invitational title at the Shadow Hills Golf Course in Eugene, Oregon. She won by 14 strokes. No other WSU women’s golfer has ever captured a tournament championship in back-to-back years.

In the 2003 NCAA showdown last May, she carded rounds of 76-72-77-74.

Her 299 total was 11 strokes over par, but only two behind national champ Michaela Parmlid of USC.

Given the conditions at the 6,225-yard Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Indiana, the rain, wind and temperatures barely in the 50s, Welch was generally pleased with her play. A string of five bogeys in the final round “didn’t help,” she says, “but I put myself in a position to win.”

Of the season ahead, she says, “I’m not a person to make goals. I just want to see the team do well, as well as last year.”

If Welch continues to play to her capabilities, Williams predicts a bright future. “She’s just a great player, a good kid, a leader for our team. She has put Washington State University on the map as far as women’s golf goes.”