HARTFORD, Conn. – The rave reviews for Keney Park Golf Course during the Girls Junior PGA Championship this week have come from all corners and might be even better than the record-breaking scores shot by some of the 144 starters.
A major contributor to the accolades is former longtime Connecticut resident Suzy Whaley, whose numerous accomplishments include playing in the PGA Tour’s Greater Hartford Open in 2003 after winning the Connecticut Section PGA Championship the previous year and becoming the first female officer in the PGA of America in 2014, leading to the start of her presidency last year.
“To have a gem like this in Hartford without any houses is spectacular,” Whaley said while watching niece Phoebe Brinker play in the championship for the first time Thursday. “I’ve talked to some of the players, and they’ve had great things to say about the course, the food and how relaxed they’ve felt. It’s a lovely walk with nature and lots of wildlife that makes it a wonderful experience.
“The message that I’d like to send is that people are missing a tremendous opportunity if they don’t play this course. In fact, if I had time to play only a few public courses in the area, this would definitely be one of them.”
Much of those sentiments can be attributed to the $8 million renovations to Keney Park and nearby Goodwin Park Golf Course from 2013 to 2016. The Connecticut Section PGA was hired to be a business consultant at the two courses, and the Hartford City Council approved a $5.8 million comprehensive restoration to Keney Park. Extensive work was done on tees, fairways and bunkers, and a driving range and chipping green were added.
“I’m really proud of the Section that I was a member of for so long and the City of Hartford being able to cooperate so well in making the changes,” said Whaley, who last year left TPC River Highlands in Cromwell to become PGA Director of Instruction the Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Then they’ve done a terrific job of continuing to make the course viable. Seventy percent of the courses in the county are public, and this is certainly one of the best as far as design, condition and playability.”
While following Brinker, Whaley also got to watch Rose Zhang, who came down to earth a bit with a 2-under-par 68, her worst score to par in 11 rounds in the championship. After starting with nine pars, Zhang birdied three of the first five holes on the back side and narrowly missed several more birdie bids down the stretch, settling for a 54-hole total of 12-under 198.
“I felt like it wasn’t my best day out there, but conditions were a little different from the first two days,” said Zhang, 16, of Irvine, Calif., alluding to more swirling winds. “I kept patient on the course. It was very hard to make birdies, but I tried not to get down on myself.
“It was a very neutral round on the front nine,” added Zhang, who committed to play at Stanford after she graduates in 2021. “I pulled a couple of my drives on holes 10 and 11 but hit a long (30-foot) birdie on 10. There were swirling winds on a lot of the holes. The par 3s were challenging – deciding which clubs to hit was tough. Overall, executing shots was different in the wind.”
Despite the so-so round, Zhang, who won the title in 2017 and finished second last year, maintained a one-stroke lead over Yuka Saso of the Philippines. Sako also shared the first-round lead at 65 and shot 66 on Thursday for 199. Zhang, who has a prime spot in the parking lot as 2017 champion, Sako, Jensen Castle (67-68-66-201) and Rachel Heck (68-67-69-204) are the only players with three sub-par rounds. Sako rebounded from a double-bogey 5 on No. 11 with birdies on five of the final seven holes, giving her seven for the round.
“The first nine was really stable,” Saso said. “I was upset after my double, but I still had more holes. I believed in myself that I could keep playing well. Good thing my putter started to work.”
Castle, of West Columbia, S.C., is alone in third place. Melanie Green (66-202) and Megha Ganne (69-203) are tied for fourth. Heck and Brinker (73-204) share sixth.
The charge of the day belonged to Alexa Pano, whose 63 tied a personal best that she set in the 2018 Evian Championship Juniors Cup. The 14-year-old from Lake Worth, Fla., vaulted 32 spots on the leaderboard after carding eight birdies and only one bogey, which came after she failed to get up and down on her final hole. She is tied for eighth with Sara Im (74) at 205.
“The whole day, I finally got the putts to start dropping,” said Pano, who shot 70 in each of the first two rounds. “I had been sticking it all week but couldn’t get anything to fall. I made nearly everything, except for one putt (on No. 18).”
Zhang is seeking to become the eighth multi-time winner in tournament history. She would join Vicki Goetzke (1987, ’89 and ’90) as the only three-time champions. The late Heather Farr (1980, ’82), Beth Bauer (’94, ’97), Aree Song (’99, 2000), Inbee Park (’01, ’02), Lexi Thompson (’07, ’09) and Ariya Jutanugarn (’11, ’12) have each won twice. If Zhang finishes first or second, she would be the second to finish top two in three consecutive years, joining Farr, who accomplished the feat in 1980-1982 (1-2-1).
“It’s very challenging to win twice, especially for a single event because every year is different,” Zhang said. “To be honest, I’m not thinking about it. I’ve seen the two-time winners like Ariya and Lexi. Their games have excelled on the LPGA Tour. I think I’m on the right path.”
After a post-round lesson with Brinker, Whaley headed to dinner with older daughter Jenn, the former captain of the Quinnipiac University women’s golf team who now works in the Aetna financial department in Boston. Next week, Suzy will caddie for younger daughter Kelly when she makes her pro debut in the Symetra Tour event at Capital Hills in Albany, N.Y. Kelly, who graduated from the University of North Carolina, her mother’s alma mater, in May, shot a course-record 65 in the final round of her victory in the Hartford Women’s Open last year, a mark that has been tied or beaten nine times in the first three rounds. Kelly is a cousin of Brinker, whose 65 in the first round gave her a share of the lead. An 8-foot putt for birdie 2 on the 18th hole Thursday made Brinker’s 73 a bit more palatable, but there was still a quick trip to the practice range.
“We’ll get it fixed,” said a smiling Suzy Whaley, who works with Brinker, along with her husband, Bill, the national director for PGA Tour Properties.
Suzy will return Friday to watch Brinker finish the championship and then hand the winner the Patty Berg Trophy, named for the World Golf Hall of Famer who was a founding member and then leading player on the LPGA Tour in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s whose 15 major wins remain the all-time record by a female golfer. Whaley also will be on hand for the final two rounds of the Boys Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park on July 30-Aug 2.
Maisie Filler of Bloomfield was the low New England player after shooting a 67 that vaulted her into a tie for 17th at 208. Filler, who turns 17 on Friday, will be a senior at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Palm Beach County Player of the Year after she tied for second in the State A1 High School Tournament and her team finished third. Filler, the youngest of three sisters who began playing golf at 12 in the PGA Junior League, decided to go to school in Florida after her eighth-grade year at the Renbrook School in West Hartford. She committed to the University of Florida in November.
The other New England players to make the cut were Katie Dzialga of Greenwich (69-211, tie for 32nd) and Sophia Sarrazin of Westport (76-218, tie for 66th).
The final round begins Friday at 7 a.m. off the first and 10th tees, and Zhang, Sako and Castle are in the final threesome off No. 1 at 9 a.m. Dzialga and Filler will go off No. 1 at 7:10 and 8:10 a.m., while Sarrazin is in the final group off No. 10 at 9 a.m.
Tom O’Brien, 66, of West Hartford will again be among the 100 volunteers working the championship.
“I really enjoy watching the girls play, and with it being my home course, I thought I could be of help,” said O’Brien, who moved from Rockledge Country Club in West Hartford to Keney Park. “I’ve really enjoyed interacting with the players, parents and (college) coaches. The players whom I’ve talked to love the undulating greens, and the ones from Florida said they don’t see courses like this and the greens have completely different grass (Bermuda) than the ones here.”
The field included players from 36 states and five country, and 40 coaches are scouting/recruiting most of the top junior players in the world.
The two championships are the first national PGA tournaments hosted by the Connecticut Section PGA, and the PGA of America selected Keney Park thanks largely to the renovations that were part of a revitalization effort led by the Hartford City Department of Public Works in concert with leadership of the City Council and Golf Oversight Commission. Both Keney Park and Goodwin Park are maintained at high standards, and customers, new and old, are discovering the new Hartford golf experience.
For the second year in a row, Keney Park is ranked by Golfweek as the second-best public course in Connecticut and is racking up industry awards after its well-publicized restoration by Dusenberry Design. It also got high marks from the PGA of America, which recognized the City’s strategy to bring golf back to the Capital City.
“It’s amazing how much the course has improved,” O’Brien said, “and I think it’s terrific that Keney Park is hosting the two championships so it can show off how good it is.”
PHOTO CREDIT: PGA of America