Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff came back from a five-hole deficit to defeat defending champion In-Bee Park, 1 up, and capture the 55th U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. Wuesthoff, 16, of Toms River, N.J., rallied after bogeys on three of the first four holes to post 12 consecutive pars and draw even with Park, 15, of Eustis, Fla., with two holes to play. She then took the lead for good with a decisive birdie at the 17th hole, before closing out Park with a par at 18 at the 6,303 yard, par-71 Brooklawn Country Club. Her victory ranks as the greatest comeback in the history of the championship.
By winning the U.S. Girls' Junior, the Korean-born Wuesthoff earned a gold medal and custody of the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy until next year’s championship, as well as exemptions into other United States Golf Association championships. She is exempt from qualifying for next year's U.S. Girls' Junior, for the next two U.S. Women's Amateurs and is exempt from local qualifying for the next five U.S. Women's Opens, provided she remains an amateur. In her five tries at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Wuesthoff’s previous best finish was a quarterfinal appearance in 2001, where she lost to eventual champion Nicole Perrot .
At one point in the match, following a birdie at the par-5 8th hole, Park, who was also born in Korea, was five holes up on Wuesthoff. But the defending champion and two-time medalist made bogeys on five of the last 10 holes, including a three-putt bogey to lose the 16th hole, opening the door for a new champion.
Wuesthoff took advantage of Park’s miscue on the next hole, knocking a 6-iron from 157 yards to within eight feet at the 396-yard 17th hole, and then made the putt to take the lead for the first time in the match. When Park's birdie putt to win the hole on 18 missed by an inch, the match was over.
Of her early troubles, Wuesthoff said, “There were more people watching and more cameras than before. I was very nervous. My hands shake when I get nervous and the front nine I was all nervous. But I said, ‘keep staying the course.’ ”
Wuesthoff was assisted all week by Gregor Steger, a 29-year veteran of Brooklawn’s caddie ranks. His contributions were no more apparent than on the putt that put Wuesthoff ahead for good, the 8-footer on 17.
“I don’t think I would have made it without him (reading the putt),” she said.
While Wuesthoff's steady play forced Park to make mistakes over the deciding holes, the defending champion’s play was not indicative of her performance throughout the championship.
Park’s coach and interpreter Charlie Yoo said, “I think In-Bee lost it. I’ve never seen her play that way. She was never down all week except on the 17 th hole (against Wuesthoff). She played great; I don’t know what happened.” Park was down early in her first round match against Lala Anai .
Park said of her play, “I kept thinking, ‘I could do it. I could do it.’”
Park was attempting to become the third girl (and fourth) junior to defend her title, following in the footsteps of Hollis Stacy, who won from 1969 to 1971 and Judy Eller, who won in 1957-58 (Tiger Woods won three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur Championships from 1991 to 1993).
Wuesthoff said of knocking off the defending champion, “My dad said last night there’s no pressure on me. The pressure is on her to win. He said it doesn’t matter if I win or lose, as long as I play my best, that’s what’s important. I kept thinking about that all day.”
Previous winners of the U.S. Girls' Junior include Mickey Wright, JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Nancy Lopez, Amy Alcott and Beth Bauer . U.S. Girls' Junior champions have gone on to win the U.S. Women's Amateur 11 times and the U.S. Women's Open 10 times.
The U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship is one of 13 championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs. The U.S. Girls’ Junior is open to female amateur golfers who have not reached their 18 th birthday prior to the end of the championship and have a USGA Handicap Index of 18.4 or better.