Junior PGA Championships : Kylee Choi, Miles Russell hold leads with one round left
Miles Russell (PGA of America Photo)
Miles Russell (PGA of America Photo)

The third round of the 47th Junior PGA Championships saw many ups and downs as the Girls struggled early while the Boys fired 19 rounds under par on the Arlington Course at Hot Springs Country Club. At the end of the day, Kylee Choi and Miles Russell, the No. 7-ranked junior on the Rolex AJGA Rankings, sat atop their respective leaderboards heading into Friday’s final round.

Choi, of Murrieta, California, shot over par for the first time in the championship, carding a score of 1-over 72 after rounds of 66-67. But on a day where many in the field struggled, the 16-year-old’s overall 8-under gives her a one-stroke lead heading to Friday.

“Today was tough,” said Choi. “I feel like my driver was going a bit shorter and my shots weren’t as straight. But I was still able to keep it from being such a high number. I feel like I could’ve done better, but I’m not completely upset about how I played because I feel like today was hard for everyone here.”

Jasmine Koo, a First-Team Rolex Junior All-American from Cerritos, California, had the low round of the day for the Girls with a 4-under 67. The 17-year-old closed her round with her sixth and seventh birdies of the day on holes 17 and 18, giving her a temporary lead at 7-under-206 with Choi still on the course.

“My putting was actually really good today, which was really different because yesterday and the first day, I really struggled on the putting,” said Koo. “I wasn’t checking the leaderboard, so I didn’t know what the group behind me was doing. I just knew I wanted to get as close to the leader as possible, I didn’t know I was in the lead.”

Despite bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16, Choi wasn’t ready to yield, and she answered with two consecutive birdies of her own to jump back to the top heading into the final day of play.

“I walked up to 17 tee and it was back-pinned,” said Choi. “Yesterday, I hit a 9-iron and it went toward the back, so I thought maybe I’ll just hit the same club and hope it’s not too far. So I just hit a good 9-iron shot that ended up being two feet from the hole, and I just tapped that in.

“On the last hole, I hit a really good drive. I laid up, but I pulled my wood, so I was buried in the rough where you could only see like the top half of my ball. But I only had 60 yards left, so I just hit a good wedge. I had about 15 feet uphill, and I was able to make it. So it felt pretty refreshing to finish with two birdies.”

A pair of top-10 golfers on the Rolex AJGA Rankings are tied for third at 6-under: No. 8 Alice Zhao from Shenyang, China, and No. 2 Gianna Clemente from Estero, Florida. Rounding out the top five is Zixin Ni from Wuhan, China at 5-under.

On the boys’ side, Russell, the co-leader coming in, turned in the low round of the day with a 6-under 65 to take sole possession of the lead by five strokes heading into Friday. The 14-year-old from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, was bogey-free, and fueled by three straight birdies on holes 4-6.

“Always when you make three in a row, it’s nice,” said Russell. “Hole 6 was the hardest, but I had the closest birdie look of the three holes.”

Russell finished with his sixth birdie of the day on the par-5, 517-yard 18th hole to move to 14-under through 54 holes.

“It’s a pretty straightforward par-5, not very long,” he said. “I hit a somewhat decent drive down the fairway. I had a 6-iron and just missed the green a little left. It wasn’t a great shot, but it was another correct spot to miss versus missing on the right and being short.”

Kihei Akina from Alpine, Utah, who shot a 3-under 68, battled alongside Russell and posted five birdies to move into second place at 9-under. Billy Davis of Spring Valley, California who shot a 3-under 68, who finished with six birdies over his last nine holes after starting 3-over on the front nine, is in third with a score of 8-under.

“I just had the mentality of I’m hitting it good, I’m just not quite scoring as I want to,” said Davis, the No. 9-ranked junior. “But if I just keep giving myself looks, I’m going to get a few in at least, and I just got hot for a minute.”

Jackson Byrd (Saint Simons Island, Georgia), the son of five-time PGA Tour winner Jonathan Byrd, is in fourth place at 7-under 206 after going 2-under 69 on Thursday. The top five also includes No. 4-ranked Blades Brown from Nashville, Tennessee, whose roller-coaster round of 1-under 70 gives him a three-day score of 6-under 207.

Jacob Settles from Winchester, Kentucky, recorded the first hole-in-one of the championship on the par-3, 147-yard 2nd hole. The shot helped propel the 17-year-old up the leaderboard into a tie for 17th with a score of 2-under entering the final round.

Hot Springs native Will Gordon was the lone player from Arkansas to make the second cut. He currently sits in a tie for 19th at 1-under for the championship.

The 54-hole cutline came in at 6-over for the Girls after play ended, sending 36 competitors into the final round. In the Boys Division, the second cutline was even par, with 30 advancing.

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ABOUT THE Junior PGA Championship

One of golf’s major championships for juniors, the Boys Junior PGA Championship is where the best in the world get their start. Begun in 1976, at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, the Championship has been a popular stop on the national junior circuit for many of today’s PGA touring professionals including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Pat Perez, who held the record for 24 years until Akshay Bhatia shattered it by 5 strokes in 2017. 72-hole, stroke-play Championship, with a cut after 36 holes to the low 70 plus ties. The Boys Junior PGA Championship is open to males who are no older than 18 years of age by the end of the tournament.

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