U.S. GIRLS' JUNIOR
Kim Breaks Curse on Way to Semifinals at Poppy Hills July 21, 2018 | Pebble Beach, Calif. By Tom Mackin

Gina Kim's match-play curse in the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship came to an end on a foggy Friday at Poppy Hills. (USGA/JD Cuban)

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On a fog-filled Friday at Poppy Hills Golf Course, Gina Kim finally ended what she described as the Round-of-16 curse that has haunted her in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship since 2015.

Abolished it forever, as she proudly put it.

She had reached that point in 2015 and 2016 after failing to qualify for match play in 2014.

But all of that changed Friday when the 18-year-old from Chapel Hill, N.C., defeated Yukino Yoshihara, 16, of Irvine, Calif., 3 and 2, in that fateful Round of 16. Then Kim went one better, reaching the Semifinals by knocking off Ashley Gilliam, 17, of Manchester, Tenn., 4 and 3, shortly before darkness and heavy fog settled in.

The opening hole of the latter match, which Gilliam birdied to win, was the first time Kim had fallen behind in match play the entire week. That unfamiliar situation did not last long.

After winning the fourth hole with a birdie to return the match to all square, Kim took the lead for good with a birdie on the par-4 seventh hole, and then increased that margin by winning the eighth, 12th and 14th holes, the latter by making a 42-foot birdie putt.

The match ended when the players halved the par-3 15th, where Kim hit a beautiful, long greenside bunker shot to 2 feet and made par, as did Gilliam.

“That hole was in the back, so I had a lot of room to work with,” said Kim. “I felt pretty confident with what I had going on at that point (Kim match was dormie), so I was just telling myself get it down the hill, keep it rolling and get it close.”

Afterward, Kim expressed her respect for Gilliam, who helped Tennessee win the final USGA Women’s State Team Championship last fall, and like herself, is a past Drive, Chip & Putt national finalist.

“It was really hard to get any advantage over her because she was playing so amazing,” said Kim. “I think just staying patient as the fog started to come back in and playing it safe and smart were the keys to why I won.”

The long day and week has taken a toll on Kim, who also defeated Sifan He, of the People’s Republic of China , 6 and 4, in the Round of 64, and Rachel Kuehn, of Asheville, N.C., 4 and 3, in the Round of 32.

“I’m mentally and physically exhausted, but that’s what will help me become a better player, so I’m ready for more,” said Kim, who missed the cut in last month’s U.S. Women’s Open Shoal Creek in Alabama. “It takes a lot patience and a lot of mental strength, especially with the fog and very difficult weather conditions. I think that it’s going to take a little more than usual to get it done.”

Kim reached the Semifinals of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with fellow North Carolinian Jennifer Chang, the runner-up in last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior who is now a rising sophomore at the University of Southern California.

Although she hasn’t talked to Chang this week, Kim did get support from defending champion and future Duke University teammate Erica Shepherd, who lost in the Round of 32 this year. Kim will be a Blue Devil this fall, while Shepherd is headed to the Durham, N.C., school in 2019.

“She was encouraging me a lot,” said Kim, “so I think I’m getting a lot of motivation from that.”

In the Semifinals on Saturday morning, Kim faces No. 2 seed Yealimi Noh, 16, of Concord, Calif., an opponent she knows well. Noh is coming off a 24-under performance in winning last week’s Girls Junior PGA Championship, a 72-hole stroke-play event contested in Lexington, Ky.

“We are friends, but competition is competition,” said Kim. “She’s playing amazing and is a great player in general, so it will definitely be challenging, but I’ll do my best to get to the championship match.”

That’s an opportunity she has earned after shaking off that aforementioned curse.

“Getting past that has definitely showed me how much I have improved and how I have evolved into a better golfer,” she said. “I’m really proud of myself for that.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at temackinjr@gmail.com.