BARRINGTON, R.I. (aUG. 13, 2011) -– Defending champion Danielle Kang of Westlake Village, Calif., and Moriya Jutanugarn of Thailand each posted a pair of 1-up semifinal victories Saturday to advance to Sunday’s 36-hole championship match of the 111th U.S. Women’s Amateur, being contested at the 6,399-yard, par-71 Rhode Island Country Club.
The 18-year-old Kang, bidding to be the first repeat Women’s Amateur champion since Kelli Kuehne 15 years ago, and the 17-year-old Jutanugarn, the low amateur at last month’s U.S. Women’s Open, each won the par-4 18th hole with 4s to close out their wins.
Kang defeated 21-year-old Brooke Pancake of Chattanooga, Tenn., while Jutanugarn edged reigning NCAA Division I individual champion Austin Ernst, 19, of Seneca, S.C.
With a win on Sunday, Jutanugarn would be the fourth player from Thailand to claim a USGA title and would join her 15-year-old sister, Ariya, as a national champion. Only two other sister combinations have won USGA championships: Harriot and Margaret Curtis, and Hollis Stacy and Martha Leach.
Ariya, who won the U.S. Girls’ Junior two weeks ago, has served as Moriya’s caddie since being eliminated in the second round on Thursday.
Thai-born players Virada Nirapathpongporn and Aree Song Wongluekiet won the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 1999 U.S. Girls’ Junior, respectively.
Kang, who plans to turn professional after this championship, is looking to become the 16th multiple winner of the Women’s Amateur.
Both finalists managed to survive the semifinals despite physical ailments. Kang re-aggravated a rib injury that she first suffered in a college event this past spring. Jutanugarn has been bothered by pain in both wrists, which caused her to withdraw from the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
It didn’t seem to affect her golf game. Jutanugarn shot the equivalent of 4-under-par 67, with the usual match-play concessions, including birdies on five of the first eight holes, which helped her gain an early 3-up advantage against Ernst, who matched her opponent with four birdies over the first nine holes and shot a 3-under 68.
“It was ridiculous,” said Ernst of the blistering start. “Those first three holes, she just got off to a great start. I looked at [my caddie] Emily [Tubert] and said, ‘I am just going to start throwing darts.’ Then I birdied four of the next five.”
Except Ernst could only trim the deficit to two holes after nine holes. A poor drive into the hazard – the ball was playable in some tall grass – on No. 6 took some of the momentum she had generated from birdies at the fourth and fifth holes, the latter of which won the hole.
Ernst’s 5-iron to tap-in range and a missed 4-foot birdie by Jutanugarn cut the deficit back to 2 down, but Jutanugarn continued to keep pace. Both players birdied the par-5 eighth; Jutanugarn from 5 feet and Ernst from 2 feet (conceded).
The status remained that way until Jutanugarn’s drive at No. 13 found the hazard, costing her the hole. Two holes later, Jutanugarn hit another wayward drive, this time onto Nayatt Road to the right of the 15th fairway. Ernst, a sophomore at Lousiana State University, eventually had her 6-foot birdie putt conceded and the match was all square for the first time.
“I wondered what happened to me,” said Jutanugarn, the No. 3 seed out of stroke-play qualifying. “Normally I hit my driver so straight. I think maybe being tired caused it.”
Ernst had an ideal chance to take her first lead at the par-3 17th, but said she hit a poor birdie putt from 12 feet.
On 18, the wind caught Ernst’s drive and sent it into the right rough. A bad lie forced her to lay up well short of the green, while Jutanugarn’s 6-iron approach stopped 20 feet above the hole. Ernst’s pitch went 6 feet past the hole, leaving her a delicate par putt. Jutanugarn carefully lagged her birdie try to 3 feet below the hole. And when Ernst pushed the par attempt, Jutanugarn finished off the match by holing her short putt.
“I wanted to two-putt the hole,” said Jutanugarn. “I don’t care if I have to go to 19th hole. It was a really exciting last hole.”
The Kang-Pancake match didn’t feature as many birdies, but was tight throughout with no golfer holding more than a 2-up advantage. Pancake, a senior at the University of Alabama, missed an 8-foot par putt to lose the third hole, then watched Kang hole a slick downhill 11-footer for birdie to take the fourth.
Pancake, a first-team All-America in 2010-11, won holes six and nine with pars, and Kang took No. 8 with a birdie and the par-3 10th with a nice two-putt par from 40 feet.
But Pancake, who rallied from a 2-down deficit in Friday’s 21-hole quarterfinal win over Erynne Lee, started to make her move at No. 12 with a conceded birdie-3. Two holes later, she converted a 4-foot downhill birdie putt to square the match, then took her first lead of the day on No. 15 by holing an 18-footer for birdie.
“It was a great momentum swing,” said Pancake. “It kind of gave me a pep in my step going to the 16th tee.”
At that point, the veteran Kang decided it was time for her to step up. Getting a good read from Pancake’s 25-foot birdie attempt on the 16th hole, Kang drained her 20-footer to square the match.
“I actually had a feeling that I was going to make a birdie,” said Kang, who also won the North and South Women’s Amateur last month at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. “I just wasn’t ready to lose.”
Both players halved No. 17 with pars, setting the stage for the finish. Kang and Pancake found the right rough off the tee. Pancake tried to run up her 4-iron approach but the ball rolled up the hill, took a peek at the green and then reversed its course back down the slope. Kang also came up a little short with her 5-iron approach, the ball rolling into rough just right of a greenside bunker.
Playing first, Pancake’s chip came up 8 feet short of the hole. Kang followed with her best chip of the day, to 3 feet. Pancake’s par putt lost its speed and turned left at the hole. Kang calmly stroked in her putt for the win.
Kang was quick to credit local chiropractor Dr. Ellen McNally with a major save. After re-aggravating the rib injury on the third hole of Friday’s quarterfinal win, Kang was able to contact McNally through the family hosting her and her father this week. After Maura Rogers made several phone calls, they found McNally, who agreed to meet Kang at her office in East Providence at 9 p.m. and was able to relieve the tension from Kang’s shoulders and ribs.
Had she not located a chiropractor, Kang’s mother, a registered acupuncturist, was prepared to take a red-eye from California to Rhode Island on Friday night.
“I could not have played without the adjustment,” said Kang, adding that Rogers’ 12-year-old daughter was making heat packs to keep Kang comfortable. “I am pretty sure I would have lost.”
Kang planned to re-visit McNally and get a massage on Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s 36-hole final in what she hopes will be a grand finale to her amateur career.
“If I win, I am pretty convinced that I am ready to go [pro],” said Kang. “It would be three amateur [victories] in a row for me going back to last year’s [Women’s] Amateur. “