Kiara Romero is the 2023 Girls Junior Champion (USGA Photo)
Like she had done all week, Kiara Romero
meticulously looked over her 7-foot par putt on the 36th green of the championship match late Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Air Force Academy Eisenhower Golf Club’s Blue Course. It was a right-to-left putt, the type that had given Romero some fits during the 74th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
But this one had major implications. With a precarious 1-up lead, a holed putt meant Romero, 17, of San Jose, Calif., would net the biggest prize in junior golf.
“My heart was racing,” said Romero. “I didn't really think about how it was going to be determining the match and stuff, I just tried to focus on putting a good stroke on it.”
When the ball settled in the bottom of the hole, Romero was a 1-up winner over Rianne Malixi. She also added her name to the illustrious list of luminaries on the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy, a group that includes U.S. Women’s Open champions Mickey Wright, JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott, Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and Minjee Lee as well as Nancy Lopez, Lexi Thompson and Rose Zhang.
The reserved Romero, an incoming University of Oregon freshman, didn’t exult, fist-pump or jump in the air. It was more a sense of relief that she had conquered two stroke-play rounds and six grueling matches over the last four days. En route to the title, she knocked out 2022 runner-up Gianna Clemente in the semifinals and 2023 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Lauren Kim in the quarters.
“I'm just so excited and super tired,” said Romero, who now earns a spot in next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club. “I mean, it's been a long day and I'm really glad I got it done. But I don't think [the USGA title has] really sunk in yet.”
Malixi, 16, was trying to become the second player from the Philippines to win this championship, following Princess Mary Superal in 2014 at Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Ariz. Yuka Saso also won the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open representing the country.
“It was totally a grind,” said Malixi. “I didn't really have my ‘A’ game today. Right before the afternoon match, I really had bad acid reflux. It was better throughout the [afternoon], but then golf wasn't nice to me today. Still, I put up a big fight.”
Both players battled balky putters throughout the match with only two birdies being recorded in the second 18 when Romero and Malixi each two-putted the par-5 29th hole after reaching in two.
So it became a test of patience and will, something the two finalists displayed throughout the week. The turning point came on the par-3 hole No. 31 when Malixi failed to get up and down for par, missing a 9-footer. Romero took a 1-up advantage, and the remaining holes were tied.
In fact, Romero didn’t take her first lead of the day until the 26th hole when Malixi could not get up and down from a greenside bunker.
“With golf, you never know what's going to happen,” said Romero, whose last big win came in the 2021 Polo Junior Classic, the only match-play event on the American Junior Golf Association calendar. She also went 3-1 in match play at last week’s Wyndham Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event conducted by the AJGA.
“So you just have to stay calm and focus really hard. I knew this 36-hole match was going to be a grind, so I just really tried to focus on hitting the fairway, hitting the green and then getting close to making birdie. And if it didn't, I had to just stay patient.”
On the par-4 36th hole, Romero’s uphill 9-iron approach from 155 yards flew past the flagstick and onto the fringe. Her delicate recovery shot trickled 7 feet by the hole. Meanwhile, Malixi found the green but had a 30-foot downhill, right-to-left breaking birdie putt that slid 5 feet by the hole.
When Romero converted, she hugged her caddie and 50-year Eisenhower Golf Club member Chuck Delich and was greeted by her parents, Rick and Maricel, the latter of whom is from the Philippines. Her older brother, Kyreece, who also is headed to Oregon this fall, and older sister Kaleiya, a rising senior at Pepperdine, did not make the trip.
Malixi never trailed in the morning 18 of the final, building as much as a 2-up advantage before missing a short putt to lose the 18th hole and carry a 1-up lead into the lunch break. A nice crowd of some 200 spectators watched Malixi hole a 20-footer for birdie to win the par-4 12th and take the par-5 16th with a par. Romero won Nos. 4, 9, 10 and 18. The two tied the par-3 third with birdies; Malixi converting from 30 feet and Romero from 15 feet.