In 72 previous iterations of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, only one player currently enrolled in college has hoisted the trophy. Much of that is due to the age restrictions – before 2017 a player could not have reached their 18th birthday by the championship’s conclusion – making it difficult for many recent high school graduates/incoming college freshmen.
But Dana Lofland (now Dormann) did win the title in 1985 as a rising sophomore at San Jose State where she’s now the head women’s golf coach, as she graduated high school at 16 and was still eligible for the championship.
Natalie Vo, ironically from San Jose, Calif., has an opportunity to accomplish that same feat. A rising sophomore at the University of Colorado, the 18-year-old carded a bogey-free, 5-under-par 68 in the second and final round of stroke play on Tuesday at The Club at Olde Stone to share medalist honors with Saki Baba, 17, of Japan with a 36-hole total of 7-under 139.
Vo, who turns 19 on Sept. 6, and Baba finished one stroke ahead of Yana Wilson, 15, of Henderson, Nev., and Olivia Duan, 16, of Cupertino, Calif.
The cut for match play came at 5-over 151 with nine players playing off for the last seven spots in the draw on Wednesday morning.
This was Vo’s best round in more than year as she never scored lower than 69 in 32 tournament rounds (76.29 scoring average) for the Buffaloes in a freshman season that didn’t include a single top-20 finish.
So what changed this week?
Better preparation. Vo, who had failed to qualify for match play in three previous USGA starts (two U.S. Girls’ Juniors and a U.S. Women’s Amateur) put forth a better practice regimen in the weeks leading into the championship, and that work looks to have paid off.
But Vo also knows what happened the past two days is wiped clean with the start of match play on Wednesday.
“It brings a lot of pressure just in general because it’s such a big event,” said Vo of being the No. 2 seed. “But I’m definitely confident going into match play.”
Baba, No. 45 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking®, came into this week off a tie for 49th in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles in early June. She continued her hot play with one of four bogey-free rounds on Tuesday, as she followed up a first-round 70 with a 4-under 69 on the 6,565-yard Arthur Hills design that opened in 2006.
Starting on No. 10, Baba, relying on good reads from local caddie Reed Richey, posted birdies on Nos. 12 and 18 and then added two more coming home on the par-4 fifth and par-3 eighth.
“Today Reed really helped me read my lines, so I was really able to control my shots and my putting was really good,” said Baba through an interpreter.
Wilson, a two-time Drive, Chip & Putt age-group champion, made a deep run to the quarterfinals a year ago at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., before being eliminated by eventual champion and world No. 1 Rose Zhang. Earlier this year, she defeated Anna Davis in a playoff by holing out a 75-yard shot to win the Annika Invitational in Orlando, Fla.
She started Tuesday’s round with three consecutive birdies before making nine pars in a row. Her lone mistake came on the 389-yard fourth hole – her 13th of the round – but she finished with five consecutive pars and signed for a 2-under 71.
Duan, making her first USGA start, registered five birdies against one bogey (par-4 10th) en route to carding a 69.
First-round leader Lauren Zaretsky, 18, of Canada, posted a 79 on Tuesday, but her 1-over total of 147 was good enough to advance to match play.
The 9-for-7 playoff will commence at 7 a.m. CDT from No. 10 tee. Holes 13, 14 and 18 would then be played, if necessary. The first match of the Round of 64 is scheduled for 8 a.m. Match play continues on Thursday with the Rounds of 32 and 16, followed by the quarterfinals and semifinals on Friday and the 36-hole championship match on Saturday. Admission is free and spectators are encouraged to attend.
“I’ve been able to play with some of the best players in the world [in college]. I feel like that helped me [for this championship].” – Natalie Vo when asked about her college experience
“I’ve never seen fairways so pure. It’s kind of comparable to Augusta National. But even at Augusta, I don’t think you have so many teed up lies in the fairway [due to the zoysiagrass]. And the greens are rolling pure.” – Yana Wilson (6-under 140) on the playing conditions
“I actually really love the heat so that was really nice. I played way better in the heat. The ball went longer so I made sure to club down a little bit. I wish this was the temperature I could have at home all the time.” – Northern Californian Olivia Duan (6-under 140) on playing under hot and humid conditions
“Maybe I won’t be as stressed. I was a little stressed starting out today. But match play is a completely different kind of stress because you are hole to hole and only going against one person.” – Trinity Beth, of Calvert City, Ky., on her mindset for match play
“My round was very stressful. I definitely didn’t have my best stuff today. I had several good birdie chances, but had a lot of lip outs. I just did my best to be patient but got a little sideways as I went through [the middle of the front nine]. I grinded through it and was able to finish out the day with a birdie so that was exciting.” – The Club at Olde Stone member Kynadie Adams (3-over 149) after grinding to make match play
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.