Major upsets at U.S. Girls' Junior semifinals
-- photo USGA
-- photo USGA

by Christina Lance

DALY CITY, Calif. (July 20, 2012) -- It will be an all-Lee final at the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior.

Australian Minjee Lee, 16, knocked off defending champion and World No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn, 2 and 1, while Southern California’s Alison Lee, 17, eliminated World No. 1 Lydia Ko, also by a 2-and-1 margin, in Friday’s semifinal matches at the 6,291-yard, par-72 Lake Merced Golf Club.

Both Jutanugarn and Ko had been on a roll through match play, needing only 56 and 53 holes, respectively, to dispatch their various opponents.

The semifinals, however, were a different story.

For the first time in match play, Jutanugarn, 16, of Thailand, opened with a bogey at the par-4 first, giving Minjee Lee an immediate lead. Lee lost the second with a bogey to square the match, but capitalized on a Jutanugarn double-bogey 6 at the par-4 fourth to reclaim the lead.

It was a lead she never relinquished. Lee, ranked eighth in the Women’s Amateur Golf Ranking, built a 4-up lead by the 12th hole and had a short putt to take the match to dormie-5. But Lee’s three-putt bogey at the par-5 14th allowed Jutanugarn to chip away at the deficit.

“I probably lost my head somewhere in the clouds,” said Lee with a rueful shake of her head.

An errant tee shot from Lee at the par-3 15th gave Jutanugarn another breath of life and trimmed the lead to two. But Lee, who is from Perth and claimed four amateur titles in 2011, steadied her game with pars at 16 and 17 to win the match and secure a spot in the final of her first USGA competition.

“I wasn't going to lose, not at that point,” said Lee, a semifinalist at this year’s Australian Amateur. “Just a few loose holes. It's OK. I got the job done.”

“I played too bad today in the afternoon,” said Jutanugarn, who lacked her usual luster on the golf course during the semis. “I can't do anything. Everything was bad. But it's OK.”

Minjee Lee had advanced to the semifinals with a 4-and-2 quarterfinal victory earlier on Friday over Kelli Murphy, 16, of Elgin, S.C., while Jutanugarn defeated 16-year-old Casie Cathrea, of nearby Livermore, Calif., 3 and 1.

Alison Lee (no relation to Minjee), of Valencia, Calif., scored the day’s second upset in upending the second-seeded Ko, of New Zealand. After a back-and-forth fight for the first 14 holes, Lee took a 1-up lead when Ko lipped out a par putt from 6 feet at the par-3 15th.

“In the beginning, it was a fight, but I could tell toward the end, Lydia wasn't making any putts,” said Lee, competing in her sixth and final Girls’ Junior. “She hit some good shots, but the putts just weren't going in. So that really opened the door for me.”

“My putts weren’t as good,” said Ko, the low amateur at the 2012 Women’s Open and winner of the 2012 New South Wales Open, making her the youngest-ever champion, at 14, of a professional event. “Everything wasn’t as good as it was the last few matches.”

Lee’s 3-foot birdie at the par-4 16th stretched her lead to 2 up, and she was able to close out Ko with a comfortable two-putt par on the ensuing 17th.

“I really wasn't expecting this, to make it this far,” said Lee, who defeated Lauren Diaz-Yi, 5 and 4, in the quarterfinals. “Match play wasn't always my strongest place … I got really lucky because I'm hitting the ball really well this week. Hopefully I can just continue it tomorrow.”

At 17 and competing in her 12th USGA championship, Alison Lee was the championship’s elder statesman. The fact that this is her last opportunity to capture this national junior championship has been in her mind all week.

“Making it to the finals really sums it all up,” said Lee, who made the cut at this month’s Women’s Open, her third time competing in the championship and her second made cut. “I just want to end with a really good year because this is my last full year of junior golf. I just want to end nicely.”

Despite the expectations placed upon her as the top-ranked female amateur in the world, Ko leaves Lake Merced with good feelings, despite not hoisting the trophy.

“Everyone is so competitive, like Alison and Ariya and a few of the other American girls,” said Ko, an 8-and-6 quarterfinal winner over Yueer Feng. “Everyone is talented out here. It was a tough course and I think I really benefitted.”

Saturday’s championship match will be the third time that players with the same last name will play in a USGA final. The Curtis sisters, Harriot and Margaret, met in the 1907 Women’s Amateur final, with Margaret winning family bragging rights. And R.L. Miller defeated Pete Miller in the final of the 1932 Amateur Public Links. The two were not related.

The U.S. Girls’ Junior is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.

ABOUT THE U.S. Girls' Junior Amateur

The Girls Junior Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted by the USGA. The event is open to female golfers who have not reached their 18th birthday prior to the close of competition and whose USGA Handicap Index does not exceed 18.4. 36 hole stroke play qualifying from which 64 players advance to match play. Regional qualifying held at sites around the United States.

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