Kiara Romero and Rianne Malixi will square off in Saturday’s 36-hole championship match of the 74th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at the U.S. Air Force Academy Eisenhower Golf Club’s Blue Course.
Romero, 17, of San Jose, Calif., knocked out 2022 runner-up and 2023 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball champion Gianna Clemente, 15, of Estero, Fla., 2 up, in the second of the two semifinal matches on Friday afternoon. Malixi, 16, of the Philippines, eliminated Leigh Chien, 17, of Irvine, Calif., 4 and 2, in the other semifinal.
An incoming University of Oregon freshman, Romero, the No. 3 seed from stroke play, avenged a 2-and-1 defeat to Clemente in the Round of 16 of last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior at The Club at Olde Stone in Bowling Green, Ky.
“I knew going into today I would have to play good, especially against Gianna, she's a great player,” said Romero, who finished third in the 2022 Girls Junior PGA Championship. “I can't really control what she's going to do. I just focused on my game and tried to hit as many greens and fairways as I could and take it from there.”
The match turned on the 15th hole when Romero rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt to tie the match. One hole later, Clemente, who is No. 40 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking®, topped her second shot on the 562-yard, par-5. Her third from 210 yards out came up short of the green and she failed to get up and down for par, ending a string of 47 holes without a bogey. Romero managed a two-putt par to take a 1-up lead.
“Yeah, that putt on 15, the long one, that's what really got me in,” said Romero. “It got me back to even. Then the next hole I just kept going with it and I got a lot of confidence coming into the last few holes.”
Both players missed the green on the 183-yard, par-3 17th, resulting in matching bogeys. Then on 18, needing to win the hole, Clemente’s approach stopped 30 feet short of the flagstick, while Romero stuffed her approach to 6 feet. When Clemente missed, Romero calmly converted her fifth birdie of the match.
Clemente had come into the final fresh off a pair of big victories, including a 3-and-2 triumph in the Round of 16 over world No. 4 Anna Davis, the 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion. She then made five birdies in ousting Clarisa Temelo, of Mexico, 6 and 5, in the quarterfinals on Friday morning.
“I’m pretty frustrated with the ending today but overall it was a solid week,” said Clemente, now 9-2 in match play at this championship. “I really had it going for a stretch of 2-3 matches and just had an off afternoon today. Kiara played great today and that’s just match play. I will take some good positives from the week and cannot wait to be in Los Angeles for the U.S. Women’s Am at Bel Air Country Club.”
After taking a 2-up lead on the front nine, Romero needed a seven-minute medical break on the eighth hole to deal with a bloody nose from the altitude.
Malixi, who is No. 95 in the WAGR, is looking to become the second Filipina to win this title, following Princes Mary Superal in 2014. Dottie Ardina lost in the 2011 final to future U.S. Women’s Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn. Yuka Saso also won the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open representing the Philippines.
“It means a lot,” said Malixi, a rising high school junior who hopes to snag her first major junior title. “I've always put myself in these kinds of positions, but I [haven’t] got the job done. But hopefully I do [it] tomorrow. I know it's not going to be an easy win. So, patience, grit and playing smart out there will really pay off in getting over the hump.”
Coming into the semifinals, Chien had twice rallied from 3-down deficits, including a 19-hole quarterfinal victory over Sidney Yermish on Friday morning. The other comeback came in the Round of 32 against 2022 U.S. Women’s Amateur co-medalist Alice Ziyi Zhao. But against the steely Malixi, she never recovered from losing four consecutive holes, beginning on No. 5, to trail 3 down at the turn. Malixi eventually closed it out on the par-5 16th hole with a conceded birdie.
“I've been having some swing issues this week,” said Chien, who has committed to attend Stanford University in 2024. “So as the week goes on I get more tired, it's just harder to get back. I had trouble hitting fairways. My irons weren't going very straight. Nothing really worked out [in the afternoon]. But it was a good round.”
Earlier on Friday, Malixi eliminated University of Texas redshirt freshman and 2023 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Farah O’Keefe, of Austin, Texas, 1 up.
The 36-hole championship match on Saturday will begin at 8:15 a.m. MT and resume at approximately 1:30 p.m. Peacock will stream the second 18 live from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. EDT, and Golf Channel will re-air it from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free and spectators are welcome to attend.
“I know I was dominating, but I didn't try to be as confident. I tried to be as neutral as I can be. Because the match wouldn't be over until it's over. I just kept on grinding out there.” – Rianne Malixi on her mindset after taking a 3-up lead in the semifinals
“I knew it was going to have to be a grind. All these girls are really good. With match play the last like four, five holes is where it's really at. So, I tried to keep my energy level up coming down to the stretch and that's really important to me.” – Kiara Romero
“It happens a lot when I travel outside of California. Just the dry weather kind of gets me. But I don't feel anything.” – Romero on dealing with the nosebleed on No. 8
“It's great. Unexpected. Especially since I wasn't totally confident with my game. But I stuck with it, and it worked out. I'm pretty happy with semifinals.” – Leigh Chien summing up her week in Colorado
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.