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Medalist Saso advances but other big names fall at U.S. Girls' Jr
The 16th hole at SentryWorld (USGA/Steve Gibbons)
The 16th hole at SentryWorld (USGA/Steve Gibbons)

Any anxieties Yuka Saso had about match play were shelved at least for one day. Saso, the stroke-play medalist in the 71st U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis., dispatched No. 64 seed and final match-play qualifier Kaylee Sakoda, of Cypress, Calif., in the Round of 64 on Monday, 6 and 4.

Saso, 18, of the Philippines, admitted on Tuesday to not feeling totally comfortable with the format, having never advanced past the Round of 32 in three previous starts in this championship (she reached the semifinals of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur). She even recorded her first bogey in 45 holes after playing bogey-free golf in stroke play.

But any nerves were quickly brushed aside to set up a Round-of-32 match on Thursday morning with Phoebe Brinker, 17, of Wilmington, Del. Brinker, who is headed to Duke University in 2020, defeated Michigan State rising sophomore Valery Plata, 18, of Colombia, 1 up.

Sakoda had to return to SentryWorld at 7 a.m. to complete the 13-for-2 playoff in the draw that began Tuesday evening and got down to the final two players for the last spot. Three hours later, Saso never let Sakoda carry over any momentum, winning three of the first four holes before losing the par-5 ninth with a bogey. She recovered quickly with winning birdies on 10 and 11, then birdied Nos. 13 and 14 to close out the match. Saso, winner of the Junior Girls PGA Championship two weeks ago in Hartford, Conn., was the equivalent of 6 under par over 14 holes, with the usual match-play concessions.

“Yeah, I was nervous,” said Saso. “I'm just happy for today. [I] struggled on the ninth hole, but good thing I got my momentum back on hole 10.”

The opening round of match play, however, did not go so well for several top players, including 2017 champion Erica Shepherd, No. 2 seed Maddison Hinson-Tolchard and 2018 runner-up Alexa Pano.

Shepherd, 18, of Greenwood, Ind., who earlier this year captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball title with fellow incoming Duke University freshman Megan Furtney, fell to Kelly Xu, 15, of Claremont, Calif., 3 and 2. Xu is noted for being the first female champion crowned at Augusta National Golf Club when she won the Girls 7-9 division of the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship in 2014.

“I had to learn about match play by Googling it last night,” said Xu, who had never played the format until Wednesday. “I definitely like playing it more than stroke play.”

Hinson-Tolchard, 18, of Australia, had a 1-up lead going into the final hole against the other playoff qualifier, Caroline Hodge, 18, of Larchmont, N.Y. But she bogeyed both the 18th and 19th holes to exit the competition.

Her fellow countrywoman, Grace Kim, had better luck. The 18-year-old eliminated Pano, 14, of West Palm Beach, Fla., 4 and 3.

But not all of the top seeds were sent home early. No. 3 Sophia Bae, 15, of Norwood, N.J., defeated Alexis Sudjianto, 18, of Charlotte, N.C., 5 and 4. In a match that saw a combined eight birdies, No. 5 Jillian Bourdage, 17, of Tamarac, Fla., outlasted Savannah Hylton, 16, of Hilton Head Island, S.C., 2 and 1. During one stretch, winning birdies were posted on six of seven holes.

Lauren Beaudreau, 18, of Lemont, Ill., also earned a 1-up decision over world No. 35 Rachel Heck, 17, of Memphis, Tenn., 1 up, winning the 18th hole after Heck had tied the encounter with consecutive birdies on 16 and 17.

ABOUT THE U.S. Girls' Junior Amateur

The Girls Junior Amateur is one of 14 national championships conducted by the USGA. The event is open to female golfers who have not reached their 19th birthday prior to the close of competition and whose USGA Handicap Index does not exceed 9.4. 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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