HARTFORD, Conn. – Suzy Whaley, the first female president of the PGA of America, had an extra rooting interest to the hometown Connecticut contingent in the Girls Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park Golf Course.
Whaley also would be closely interested in the exploits of Phoebe Brinker, her niece and the cousin of her youngest daughter, Kelly, whose closing, 5-under-par 65 in winning the Hartford Women’s Open last year was the women’s course record.
Well, a back-nine, 5-under 30 that included four birdies in the last five holes Tuesday enabled Brinker to match Kelly’s record and tie Sara Im of Duluth, Ga., and Yuka Saso of the Philippines for the first-round lead.
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t know she (had the record),” Brinker, who lives in Wilmington, Del. “I’ve played with Kelly since I was little. That’s really cool to be tied with her.”
Suzy Whaley, who will be at Keney Park for the final two rounds on Thursday and Friday, was ecstatic for Brinker.
“To see either one of my daughters (Kelly and Jenn) or my niece (Phoebe), who I consider my third daughter, at the top of any leaderboard is a moment and screenshot that I’ll have forever,” said Whaley, a longtime Connecticut resident now living in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Phoebe called me right when she finished. She knows there’s a ton of golf left, but she was proud of herself. I told her she could celebrate for a half-hour and then she needed to go putt.
“Kelly and Jenn are like her big sisters. She used to live with us every summer. It’s a cool day for her to tie Kelly.”
Brinker’s 65 was a career-best for the 17-year-old. After making one birdie and one bogey on the front nine, Brinker birdied the par-5 10th hole and then closed with birdies at Nos. 14, 15, 17 and 18.
“My irons weren’t going as close to the hole,” Brinker said. “I was struggling a little bit, but my putting was solid all day. I stayed patient. I didn’t hit it very well on the range. I just tried to keep hitting fairways and greens. I wasn’t expecting (the 65). I played this course when I was younger for PGA Junior League so I’m definitely very comfortable out here.”
Im is making her tournament debut after being the 2018 Drive, Chip and Putt champion in the 12-13 Division. Like Brinker, Im charged to the top late with birdies on the 12th, 14th, 15th and 18th holes.
“I wasn’t expecting to shoot under par,” Im said. “I was coming out trying my best, and having one of the lowest rounds is really meaningful to me. I had a lot of birdie chances. Usually, putting is my problem, but today everything went in that was supposed to. Today was just solid all around.”
Saso, who tied for sixth last year at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Ky., bogeyed the first hole but then carded six birdies, including three in a row on Nos. 12-14.
“I’m really thankful,” Saso said. “I wasn’t putting well the first nine because the greens were a little bit slower than I thought they would be. The back nine, my approach shots were good. A lot of them were inside 15 feet.
“Last year (at the Girls Junior PGA), I learned how to maintain a good score. That has helped me at a lot of tournaments, and it helped me today, too. I hope I can bring it again tomorrow.”
The three leaders combined for 13 birdies and no bogeys on their back nines on Tuesday.
Lilly Thomas of Bentonville, Ark., is fourth at 66, one ahead of five players, including Rose Zhang, the 2017 winner and last year’s runner-up from Irvine, Calif.
Cassie Kim of Yakima, Wash., set off some post-Fourth of July fireworks with her first career hole-in-one with a 6-iron shot from 148 yards on the 18th hole. She shot 72 and is in a tie for 60th.
The leading New England player was Sophia Sarrazin of Westport, who shot 70 and is tied for 27th. Other top players from New England were Julia Kashimura of Watertown and Maiser Filler of Bloomfield (71, tie for 40th) and Katie Dzialga of Greenwich (72).
The low 70 and ties in the 144-player field after Wednesday’s second round qualify for the final 36 holes.
The Boys Junior PGA Championship will also be played at Keney Park GC on July 30-Aug. 2.