3 Things to Know: U.S. Girls’ Junior Stroke Play July 21, 2019 | Stevens Point, Wis. By David Shefter, USGA

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A field of 156 of the best female golfers under the age of 19 will begin their quest on Monday at SentryWorld to become champion of the 71st U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. Over the next two days, the competitors will play two rounds of stroke play to determine the 64 match-play qualifiers. From there, the next champion will need to navigate herself through six matches, the last of which is a 36-hole marathon on Saturday.

The champion will have her name etched on the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy as well as earn an exemption into the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas. Erica Shepherd, 18, of Greenwood, Ind., is the only player in the field who has achieved the feat, having claimed the title two years ago at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo., earning a spot in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek.

Last year’s winner, Yealimi Noh, of Concord, Calif., was eligible to defend but chose to turn professional in February, and just two weeks ago tied for sixth in the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic 101 miles to the east of SentryWorld.

Even without the defending champion, the field is loaded with talent. Five players are among the top 50 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR), with Rose Zhang, of Irvine, Calif., leading the pack at No. 17. Yuka Saso (24), Rachel Heck (34), Alexa Pano (38) and Amanda Sambach (45) round out that list.

The field also includes two players – Grace Summerhays and Jiarui (Joyce) Jin – whose brothers (Preston Summerhays and Bo Jin) reached the final match of last week’s U.S. Junior Amateur at Inverness Club, with Summerhays prevailing, 2 and 1.

So as the players gather their nerves and prepare to start their championship run, here are three things to know going into stroke play:

Traveling Girl

It has been quite a whirlwind seven weeks for 14-year-old Floridian Alexa Pano. The West Palm Beach resident, who was the runner-up to Noh last year at Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, Calif., started her odyssey by qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.) in late May. She then stayed in the state to win the Rolex Girls Championship, her first major title on the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) circuit.

The two-time Drive, Chip & Putt age-group national champion also has competed in a Symetra Tour event in Tennessee, represented the East in the Wyndham Cup – the AJGA’s version of the Ryder Cup – in North Carolina, and competed in the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic in Wisconsin on a sponsor’s exemption. Then it was on to 44th Girls Junior PGA Championship in Hartford, Conn. – she rallied with rounds of 63-66 to tie for fourth – followed by a jaunt up to her native Massachusetts to play a U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier at Thorny Lea Golf Club, where Pano carded a 1-under 70 to earn one of the four available spots.

Now after a few days of rest, she’ll try to win her first USGA title after the near-miss in 2018.

Flower Power

When players talk about this year’s championship venue, the discussion is likely to start with SentryWorld’s 16th hole. Appropriately named the Flower Hole, the par 3 is surrounded by up to 40,000 colorful blossoms. For this year’s championship, the agronomy staff at SentryWorld incorporated the USGA logo into the arrangement. The variety of flowers includes patagonias and impatiens, but no roses. However, there is a rather significant Rose in this year’s field. Rose Zhang, 16, comes into the championship fresh off a tie for fourth (with Pano) in the Girls Junior PGA Championship. She led the 72-hole tournament through the first three rounds before shooting a final-round 73. But of the seven U.S. Girls’ Junior competitors to qualify for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Zhang was the lone player to make the cut, tying for 55th.

School Daze

This year’s field includes the sister duo of Madison, 16, and Carissa Wu, 17, of Dublin, Calif. That, in itself, is not all the unusual for the U.S. Girls’ Junior, as past championships have showcased the Song Wongluekiet twins (Aree and Naree), the Lendl sisters (Daniela, Marika and Isabella) and the Jutanugarns (Ariya and Moriya). But there is an added twist to the Wu sisters’ saga. They are joined in the field by Carondelet High School teammate Madelyn Gamble, 16, of Pleasant Valley, Calif., who advanced to the Round of 64 last year. Carondelet is an all-girls Catholic school in Concord, Calif., that is the sister school to California football power De La Salle. It is also the same school that 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Yealimi Noh attended for two years before she was home-schooled. Maybe that karma will rub off one of these three Cougars.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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