It turns out Yana Wilson is pretty good at this match-play thing. A week after going 3-0 in the American Junior Golf Association’s Wyndham Cup in leading the West to a resounding victory, the 15-year-old from Henderson, Nev., continued her recent unblemished mark in the head-to-head format by capturing the 73rd U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at The Club at Olde Stone with a 3-and-2 victory over Gianna Clemente, 14, of Estero, Fla., in Saturday’s 36-hole final.
Wilson, a quarterfinalist in last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior (she fell to eventual champion and world No. 1 Rose Zhang), went 6-0 in match play over the past four days in extreme heat and humidity – the heat index on Saturday reached the low triple digits – to add her name to the pantheon of legendary champions who have etched their names on the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy.
The title also comes with an exemption into the 78th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica next July at iconic Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. A number of U.S. Women’s Open champions have won the U.S. Girls’ Junior, including Mickey Wright, JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott, Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and last month’s champion, Minjee Lee.
“It means a lot,” said Wilson, a two-time 12-13 age-group Drive, Chip & Putt champion. “Today I looked at the boards that [the USGA put up] walking up to hole 1, and I saw a lot of the girls who won the U.S. Girls' Junior had won the U.S. Open, and they have really just become legends. Hopefully one day I can join them.”
The rising high school junior has already built quite a résumé, including a walk-off victory over Anna Davis to win the Annika Invitational in Orlando, Fla., earlier this year when she holed a 75-yard wedge shot on the first playoff hole. That made Wilson 10 of 11 in playoffs, a statistic she said has made her a tough out in match play. In 2020 at age 14, she won the Joanne Winter Arizona Silver Belle, becoming the youngest champion in an event that dates to 1971.
“Honestly, I try not to get affected by little things,” said Wilson, “and I feel like sometimes the opponents that I play against are really fiery, and if stuff doesn't go their way they get upset. I feel like I'm just a very steady player.”
No more so than in the afternoon portion of the final. Trailing 1 down on the 26th green, Wilson had a golden chance to tie up the match, but badly pulled her putt. But she didn’t let the setback affect her attitude. And on the next hole, a par 5, she two-putted from 50 feet for a winning birdie. When Clemente failed to get up and down for par from a greenside bunker at the par-4 28th hole, Wilson took the lead for good. Down the stretch, she converted several putts of 6 feet or less to tie or win holes.
Clemente, who in 2019 became the third-youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur, never got her putter going. At least not like Friday’s semifinal when she converted eight birdies in an impressive 6-and-5 win over Maria Jose Marin, of Colombia.
On Thursday morning in the Round of 32, she rallied from 4 down with eight to play to defeat Adrian Anderson, 2 up, a run that included three birdies.
But on Saturday, she lipped out a 12-footer for birdie on the 274-yard, par-4 32nd hole that could have halved a 2-down deficit. She also three-putted from 60 feet on the 33rd hole, missing an 8-foot par attempt to go 3 down. Even her last-ditch comeback effort on the 149-yard 34th hole came up a few inches short as her 15-footer for birdie didn’t quite have enough speed.
“I think I definitely need to do some putting work,” said Clemente, who also played in last week’s Wyndham Cup for the East and went 0-2 against Wilson in four-ball and foursomes play. “But I did play well. I can't complain about winning five matches. Just need to move on to the next one. I'm going to go home and rest and prepare for the [U.S. Women’s Amateur in a couple of weeks].”
When the match concluded, Wilson, with a small group of supporters made up mainly of the grandchildren of two-time U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry, was doused by water before being handed the trophy and awarded the gold medal in a ceremony on the green.
It had been a long day and a tough match, where neither player had held more than a 1-up lead for the first 30 holes. The morning 18 ended with Wilson taking the advantage into the lunch break when she nearly holed out her fourth shot on the 549-yard, par 5, and Clemente missed a 6-footer for par.
“It was kind of brutal out here today,” said Wilson of the stifling heat. “I was telling my caddie (Tate Hanks) that I wasn't trying to say it out too loud so Gia wouldn't hear me complain. I just tried to stay as cool as possible. TaylorMade gave me an umbrella, so I used it. That was so helpful this week. I put my face in like the ice chest over there for a little bit.”
“I honestly think it was my caddie (Tate Hanks). I don't think I had anything to do with it. We were just finishing up 10 (28th of the match), and we were on hole 11. He did the funniest thing. I can't say what, but he did the funniest thing…It just cracked me up.” – Yana Wilson when asked about staying loose under the pressure
“I didn't really treat my back nine as it was like an actual match. I was just trying to hit fairways and hit greens and just roll them in like I do in practice, so I just kind of carried that mentality on with me.” – Wilson on her mindset over the final seven holes
“It's insane. It's honestly unreal. Nothing has really sunken in yet. On the back nine I didn't really realize that I was in an actual match because I was just trying to play my best golf possible…Pebble [Beach] looks amazing. Actually, my dad has played Pebble Beach twice, and I've only seen No. 18 once because I think we went to go get dinner when we visited there. No. 7, the par 3…I’m so excited to play it.” – Wilson on getting to tee it up next July with the world’s best players at Pebble Beach
“I beat some amazing players this week, in stroke play and in match play. It happens; you don't always play your best, and that's okay. I just didn't make enough putts today and hit enough greens, and it happens.” – Gianna Clemente summing up her week
“It's definitely really tough. I was really feeling it when we ate lunch. I was like, ‘I am really tired.’ I was tired yesterday, too. I think both of us were tired. But I fought as hard as I could, and unfortunately it just wasn't enough.” – Clemente on playing through the extreme heat
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.