HARTFORD, Conn. – Yuka Sosa wanted to be a professional golfer from the day she began hitting balls at 8 years old in Manila, The Philippines.
Sosa had already been involved with karate and baseball, but as soon as her father/coach, Masakazu, put a golf club in her hand, she was hooked, especially after seeing LPGA standout Paula Creamer for the first time.
“I wanted to be a pro from the beginning,” Sosa said Friday after rallying for a two-stroke victory in the Girls Junior PGA Championship at Keney Park Golf Course. “I liked the other sports, but golf was No. 1 as soon as I started. And Paula Creamer was my inspiration.”
Sosa finished in championship fashion Friday, shooting a 4-under-par 31 on the back nine for a closing 4-under 67 and a 72-hole total of 14-under 266, which edged playing partner Jensen Castle of West Columbia, S.C. The other member of the final group, Rose Zhang, the leader after the second and third rounds, struggled to a 73 for 271 and a tie for fourth. Zhang, who won in 2017 and finished second last year, was trying to join Vickie Goetze as the only three-time titlists in 44 championships.
“Winning in the United States is really special,” said Saso, who tied for sixth last year. “It’s really hard to do since I live in Asia. I’m just really happy and thankful. My goal this week was to play steady and have fun. I think I did that well.”
Sosa, 18, began the day a stroke behind Zhang and admitted she was a bit uptight at the outset as she bogeyed two of the first five holes. But a birdie at No. 7 fueled Sosa’s comeback that enabled her to improve on a third-place finish in 2016 and a tie for ninth last year.
“I was a little nervous and didn’t feel comfortable starting out,” Sosa said. “For the tee, it was really hard for me. After the two bogeys, I told myself, ‘It’s OK I still have the back nine. The birdie on seventh hole made me more relaxed. I felt a lot more comfortable on the back nine.”
Sosa put on a chipping clinic on the back nine, knocking the ball to 4, 4 and 6 feet to set up birdies at the 10th, 12th and 14th holes to take the lead. She capped her stirring finish with a 40-yard pitch on the par-4 17th hole to 4 feet that led to a final birdie that virtually clinched the win. She and Castle each parred No. 18 to finish with 67s.
Sosa came to the United States for the first time when he was 10 and ended up in Pinehurst, N.C., one of the leading golf meccas in the world. She joined IMG Torrey Pines in California at 12 and has had success ever since. She won two gold medals in the 2018 Asian Games, captured the Philippine Ladies Open for the second time earlier this year, tied for ninth in the ANA Junior Inspiration and had an exemption into the championship for a top-10 finish in 2018 (tie for sixth).
Sosa is playing in the U.S. Girls Junior Championship on July 22-27 at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wisc., and then plans to go to the LPGA Tour qualifying school in the fall. If she plays well enough to earn her LPGA Tour card, she’ll turn pro. If not, she has a golf scholarship to the University of Georgia and will have a spot in the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April.
“This will help me in many ways,” Saso said. “I’m really thankful for this experience.”
Castle, 18, also had a so-so start, carding one birdie and one bogey in a front-nine 35. But like Sosa, she finished strong, making birdies on the 10th, 12th, 14th and 17th holes to offset her lone bogey at No. 16. Her runner-up finish far exceeded a tie for 43rd last year and puts her in good stead as she heads to the University of Kentucky after finishing her summer schedule.
“I wasn’t worried about Yuka, I was only worried about myself,” Castle said. “I’d been playing well all week and did again today, but Yuka played great the whole round. We fed off each other a lot. Everyone I drained a long putt, she drained it right after me. … I’m extremely proud of how I played. I did not expect this, but I’ll take it.”
Zhang, 16, of Irvine, Calif., was obviously disappointed after entering the final round 11-for-11 in sub-par rounds in the championship. She also tied for 55th in the U.S. Women’s Open in June after being a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team and an American Junior Golf Association Rolex All-American in 2018, when she won three AJGA events. But after shooting 67-63-68 in the first three rounds, she could do no better than 15 pars and three bogeys in the closing 73.
“I was actually feeling pretty comfortable on the course,” Zhang said. “The putts were burning edges, but they weren’t dropping. It was quite hard. … (Yuka) had a lot of clutch putts. She struck the ball extremely well. She’s such a great friend and player. I’m really happy for her.”
Amari Avery, of Riverside, Calif., made the biggest splash of the day, shooting a 63, one off the course record. She finished with a flourish with an eagle 2 at the 16th hole and birdie 2 at No. 18 for third alone at 269.
But the shot of the day came from Alexa Pano, who holed a 127-yard pitching wedge shot for her second hole-in-one at No. 6. The 14-year-old from Lake Worth, Fla., shot 66 after a third-round 63 to tie Zhang for fourth. She was fourth alone last year at 13.
“I couldn’t see (the hole-in-one), but I guess it bounced right and went in,” Pano said.
The leading player with a Connecticut connection to make the cut was Maisie Filler, who often played Keney Park while growing up in Bloomfield. She went to the Renbrook School in West Hartford through eighth grade and then to the Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla. She’ll playing in the U.S. Girls Championship and try to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur before heading to the University of Florida on a golf scholarship.
Filler celebrated her 18th birthday with three birdies on the back nine that led to a 3-under 32 for 68-276 and a tie for 16th. That was one stroke higher than Phoebe Brinker of Wilmington, Del., whose 65 shared the first-round lead and tied the women’s course record shot by her cousin, Kelly Whaley, in the final round of her victory in the 2018 Hartford Women’s Open. Brinker is the niece and Whaley the younger daughter of Suzy Whaley, the first female president of the PGA of America who handed the Patty Berg Trophy to Sosa.
“I definitely felt more comfortable as the week went on, especially putting,” Filler said. “I had an advantage having played here growing up, but everyone in this tournament is so talented that it’s not that big of an advantage.”
Filler, who will be a senior at Oxbridge Academy, 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, committed to the University of Florida in November.
The other New England players to make the cut were Katie Dzialga of Greenwich (70-281, tie for 33rd), Julia Kashimura of Watertown (72-290, tied for 64th) and Sophia Sarrazin of Westport (77-300, 76th).
During the championship awards ceremony, Suzy Whaley thanked the City of Hartford, Keney Park officials and the Connecticut Section PGA officials and staff for their stellar work as the Section hosted its first PGA of America national championship. They’ll do it again July 30-Aug. 2, when the Boys PGA Junior Championship is also held at Keney Park. Several PGA of America officials, including championship manager Trenton Blundell, will stay in Hartford through the Boys Championship, and some of the organization’s operations facilities also will remain intact.
“It was an incredible week in which I really enjoyed meeting so many players and families about 15 minutes from where I grew up (in Farmington),” Whaley said. “We really appreciation all that the City of Hartford, Keney Park staff and Connecticut Section PGA members and championship staff did. I’m proud of the Section that I used to be a part of, and I’m really looking forward to coming back in a few weeks.”
Whaley’s victory in the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship qualified her for the 2003 Canon Greater Hartford Open (now Travelers Championship) at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. She became the first female to be elected a PGA of America officer in 2014, and when her two-year reign as president ends next year, the Connecticut Section PGA will host the organization’s annual meeting in Hartford in October.