HARTFORD, Conn. – Rose Zhang was understandably the favorite to the win PGA of America Girls Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park Golf Course.
Zhang captured the tournament in 2017 and finished second a year ago, so the standout from Irvine, Calif., was the logical choice to become a two-time winner.
Zhang made a historic move to another title Wednesday when he shot a personal-best and momentary course-record, 7-under-par 63 for a 36-hole total of 10-under 130, a record in the 44-year history of the championship, and a one-stroke victory over Sara Im and Phoebe Brinker, two of the three leaders after the first round.
Almost unbelievably, Zhang’s record lasted all of three hours. Megha Ganne of Holmdel, N.J., carded eight birdies in a bogey-free 62 for yet another new championship record. Zhang, 16, would have matched that number if she hadn’t missed a 5-foot putt on her final hole, No. 9, to register her only bogey of the day.
“I was pretty concentrated on the course,” Zhang said. “I didn’t feel any nerves and wasn’t looking at other scores, which helped keep me in check. I managed to shoot a pretty good score.”
Pretty good? Starting on the 10th hole, Zhang shot a 5-under 30 on the back nine highlighted by an eagle 3 at No. 14.
“I didn’t feel this number was out there,” Zhang said. “After playing nine holes, I didn’t really feel like I shot 5-under on the front. On the back nine, I was trying to maintain and stay aggressive.”
Zhang finished with the eagle, six birdies and one bogey. The eagle came on a 25-foot putt after a 3-wood shot from 219 yards to the middle of the green.
“I was trying not to three-putt,” Zhang said. “The putt had a really big downhill break. I was just trying to get it past the hole and close enough for a birdie opportunity. It rolled in. It was just that kind of day.”
At 10-under through two rounds, Zhang is an astonishing 50-under in her 10 career Girls Junior PGA rounds. Her victory in 2017 came at 20-under, and she repeated that performance in 2018 but was runner-up to Yealimi Noh’s record 24-under. Zhang credits her performances to the tournament’s atmosphere and her drive to be aggressive.
“This championship has some of the best players from all states,” Zhang said. “Some other tournaments we play are based only on rankings, but at this tournament, there’s new people you meet from each state and make new friendships.
“It’s really hard to be consistent. I feel like each year is a new challenge. Staying consistent means staying more aggressive with your game and trying to improve.”
The 144-player starting field came from 36 states and five countries and are being scouted/recruited by 15 college coaches from as far away as Oregon.
Im, of Duluth, Ga., had a roller-coaster round of nine birdies, five pars, three bogeys and a double-bogey 7 at the 14th hole, where Zhang made 3.
“After my double, I told myself to get more birdie chances,” said Im, who won the 12-13 Division in the 2018 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. “If you put the ball in the right spots, you can shoot well on this course. Birdieing my last hole gives me confidence going into tomorrow.”
Brinker, who started on the back nine, kept pace with Im by also carding a 66. With three birdies through her first five holes, it appeared she was heading right back to the top of the leaderboard. A bogey at the 16th hole derailed her momentum, but she rallied with birdies on Nos. 2 and 6.
“The greens were definitely harder (than the first round),” said Brinker, who lives in Wilmington, Del. “I started very well, but I wasn’t hitting it very close and lost the putter for a few holes. But I was playing with two great girls (Megan Schofill and Annabelle Pancake), so we had fun all day. That helped the nerves go away.”
Brinker, Im and Yuka Saso tied Keney Park’s 18-hole women’s course record in the first round that had been shot by Kelly Whaley in the final round of her victory in the 2017 Hartford Women’s Open run by the Connecticut Section PGA. Brinker is the cousin of Whaley and the niece of Suzy Whaley, the former longtime Connecticut resident now living in Florida who is the first female president in the history of the PGA of America. Suzy Whaley will be on hand for the final two rounds Thursday and Friday.
Ganne had plenty to be excited about after setting the newest tournament record that vaulted her 55 spots into fifth place.
“My dad asked me yesterday when I was going to give him a bogey-free round,” said Ganne, who shot 10 strokes lower than in the opening 18 hole. “He’s been asking me since I was eight years old. He wasn’t here today, but I finally got one.
“Off the tee, I felt really confident. I was driving it 20 yards farther than I normally do, so I had shorter irons coming in all day. By default, I was just closer to the hole.”
Saso, a resident of the Philippines, is alone in fourth place after carding 68 for 133.
Seventy-six players who shot 5-over 145 or better qualified for the final two rounds. Twenty-six players who shot par or better, and Maiser Filler of Bloomfield was the low New England player after shooting 70, including 32 on the back nine, for 141 and a tie for 31st. Filler, who turns 17 on Friday, will be a senior at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was the 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, committed to the University of Florida in November.
The other New England players to make the cut were Katie Dzialga of Greenwich (70-142, tie for 40th) and Sophia Sarrazin of Westport (73-143, tie for 47th).
The third round begins Thursday at 7 a.m., and Zhang, Im and Brinker are in the final threesome that tees off at 11:46 a.m.
YOUNGSTERS ACCEPT PGA TOUR MEMBERSHIP
The PGA Tour announced Wednesday that Matthew Wolff has joined the Tour as a tournament winner through the 2020-21 season after winning the 3M Open on Sunday in his fourth career start. In addition, Collin Morikawa accepted Special Temporary Membership for the remainder of the season as he attempts to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2019-20 season. Wolff and Morikawa received two of the four sponsors’ exemptions to the Travelers Championship.
Wolff, 20, became the ninth-youngest winner in PGA Tour history and the first player under the age of 21 to win on the Tour since 2017 Travelers Championship champion Jordan Spieth at the 2013 John Deere Classic. With the victory, Wolff earned 500 FedExCup points and is now eligible for the FedExCup playoffs. Non-member FedExCup points he earned in previous professional starts are now official, giving him a season total of 502, well inside the top 125.
A native of Agoura Hills, Calif., Wolff played two seasons at Oklahoma State, winning a title in both the team (2018) and individual (2019) formats at the NCAA Championships. Only Ben Crenshaw (1973) and Tiger Woods (1996) previously won both the NCAA individual title and a PGA Tour event in the same year. In all, Wolff won six times in his sophomore season and was the recipient of the Fred Haskins Award as the nation’s most outstanding player.
Morikawa, 22, finished runner-up to Wolff at the 3M Open and collected 245 non-member FedExCup points. Coupled with his 89 non-member points heading into the week, Morikawa now has 334 points to surpass the 266 points earned by No. 150 on last season’s FedExCup standings to earn Special Temporary Membership. The Los Angeles native is now eligible for unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the season as he attempts to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2019-20 season.
To earn PGA Tour membership for the 2019-20 season, Morikawa must earn as many or more non-member FedExCup points as No. 125 in the final 2018-19 regular season standings, which currently stands at 286.
Special Temporary Members are not eligible for the FedExCup Playoffs, but they or non-members who subsequently become regular PGA Tour members by winning an official event during the season will be counted on the FedExCup points list, along with any FedExCup points earned as a non-member (excluding those won at World Golf Championships events as a non-member) and thus be eligible for the FedExCup Playoffs.
Morikawa is the fourth player to join the PGA Tour as a Special Temporary Member in 2018-19, joining England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard and Doc Redman of Raleigh, N.C. Morikawa, formerly No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, played four seasons at California, where he was a three-time first-team All-American. He was named the 2018 Golfweek Men’s National Player of the Year and earned Pac-12 Player of the Year honors in 2019.