Lei Ye and Jillian Bourdage (USGA/Steve Gibbons)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that a course with a Flower Hole will host the championship match of the 71st U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship featuring a Big Ten/Pacific-12 matchup.
Call it the USGA’s Rose Bowl for the under-19 female set.
Jillian Bourdage, 17, of Tamarac, Fla., who has committed to attend The Ohio State University in 2020, will face incoming Stanford University freshman Lei Ye, 18, of the People’s Republic of China, in Saturday’s 36-hole final.
Bourdage, the last remaining player in the field with Wisconsin roots (her mom grew up in the Badger State), earned her spot in the final on Friday afternoon by knocking out medalist and No. 1 seed Yuka Saso, 18, of the Philippines, 2 up. Ye defeated incoming University of Tennessee freshman Nicole Whiston, 18, of San Diego, Calif., in the other semifinal, 3 and 2.
Bourdage, the No. 5 seed from stroke play, will be playing in her second USGA championship match of 2019, having lost with partner and fellow Floridian Casey Weidenfeld in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball final at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla., to incoming Duke freshmen Megan Furtney and Erica Shepherd. Ironically, Ye, the No. 7 seed, also lost in a U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball final in 2018 at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., with partner Yu Chun Chang.
Now one of these players will be adding a USGA trophy to their mantle.
After four sun-splashed competition days, the competitors were greeted with some intermittent rain showers and winds in the 10-15 mph range. It was the first precipitation since Saturday’s powerful storm that forced the postponement of virtually the entire first official practice round.
Bourdage, who has not trailed in 83 holes of match play in her first U.S. Girls’ Junior appearance, saw a 2-up lead evaporate in the middle of the second nine with consecutive bogeys. With a chance to go 3 up with four to play, she three-putted the par-5 14th, missing a comebacker from 8 feet. Then on the par-4 15th hole, she failed to get up and down for par after Saso had stuffed her 9-iron approach to within 5 feet.
But on the par-4 17th, a hole Saso had only played once since the end of stroke play on Tuesday, Bourdage converted a 16-foot birdie putt during a brief downpour to take a 1-up lead.
“That one felt really good,” said Bourdage, who is 20 hours into gaining her pilot’s license. “I had a putt similar to that this morning [in my 2-and-1 quarterfinal win over Lauren Beaudreau] from I think around 12 feet for birdie. That's how I won my first match, too, so I knew the read on it, and I just had to trust myself and not blow it by six feet. I just had to get the pacing right on that one, and that felt extraordinary. I can't even describe the words how amazing it felt to make that putt.”
On 18, Bourdage executed a perfect 4-hybrid approach from 173 yards to within 6 feet to set up a birdie that was eventually conceded when Saso, No. 25 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), could not convert her downhill 10-footer for birdie.
“This week my confidence has grown with each round, and I'm just super happy to see that all my hard work has been paying off, especially on the short game and the putting, because I've been struggling with that a little bit for the past couple months,” said Bourdage, who is No. 838 in the WAGR. “I'm making some good putts out there under pressure, and that's definitely a confidence booster.”
Ye, No. 69 in the WAGR, jumped out to a fast start against Whiston, registering birdies on the first three holes for a 3-up advantage. A winning par on No. 4 and a birdie at the fifth by Whiston cut that deficit to 1 up, but that is the closest she would get. Ye won the eighth with a par and No. 11 with a short birdie putt to regain her 3-up lead. A winning par on the par-5 14th pushed the lead to 4 up with four to play. Whiston momentarily stayed in the match with a birdie at 15 before the match ended on the par-3 16th, the famous Flower Hole at SentryWorld, when both players tied with 3s.
“Definitely a lot easier than when I was only 1-up or 1-down at one point earlier this week,” said Ye. “You know, I think it's a little bit less pressure knowing that if I make good pars and make a birdie or two, that will be enough, that I'm not coming from behind and forced to make a bunch of birdies to make up for it.”
Earlier on Friday, Saso and Rose Zhang, No. 22 in the WAGR, produced a dramatic quarterfinal, with the former winning Nos. 17 and 18 for a 2-up victory. Zhang, who was outdueled by Saso in the Junior PGA Championship two weeks ago in Hartford, Conn., played 3-under golf, but had a costly three-putt bogey on the par-4 17th that gave Saso a 1-up lead. She had one more chance to possibly force extra holes, but her 9-foot downhill putt scooted past the hole and Zhang then conceded Saso’s 5-foot birdie.
“It was a slight misread,” said Zhang of her 8-foot par putt. “I didn’t play enough [break].”
Ye also survived a late rally from six-time U.S. Girls’ Junior competitor Brooke Seay, 18, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., 1 up. Ye holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole and then watched Seay, a fellow incoming Stanford University freshman, miss from 5 feet. Seay, who was 3 down at one point won Nos. 14, 15 and 17 to tie the match.
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