Kristen Park, 14, of Buena Park, Calif., had never played in a match-play event before heading to the 59th U.S. Girls’ Junior this week at the par-72, 6,931-yard Tacoma Country and Golf Club.
Now, she is the 2007 Girls’ Junior champion after earning a 4-and-3 victory Saturday over Ayaka Kaneko, 17, of Honolulu, Hawaii.
“It’s just so surprising,” said Park, who was playing in her first USGA championship. “It’s so much bigger than my goal. I’m really honored.”
The two played evenly in the morning round – both players hit nine of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens and both had 30 putts (with the usual match-play concessions) – and were all square after the first 18 holes of the scheduled 36-hole final.
But the fortunes started to turn early in the afternoon’s second round. Park took the lead when she converted a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-4, 355-yard second hole, the 20th of the match.
She would not trail again.
Kaneko’s tee shot on the par-4 22nd hole landed under a tree and Kaneko eventually conceded Park’s birdie. One hole later, a three-putt from Kaneko gave Park a 3-up advantage. Kaneko did get one back with a birdie at the par-3 24th hole.
But Kaneko’s hopes of a comeback might have been dashed at the 26th hole of the match, the par-4, 414-yard 26th hole. After Park found trouble off the tee, she needed to convert a 10-foot par putt to halve the hole, which she did to maintain her 2-up lead.
“I knew it was an important putt,” said Park. “But I didn’t really put that much pressure on myself.”
She went on to win the next hole after converting a 5-foot birdie putt, and made a 3-footer for par on the 30th hole after Kaneko missed her 6-foot par putt.
“I couldn’t putt at all,” said Kaneko. “That was the difference.”
But Kaneko was impressed by her opponent’s consistency.
“She hit always in the fairway and she hit always on the green and she is so steady,” said the Japanese-born Kaneko, who was playing in her third Girls’ Junior and who qualified for the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open. “She can putt, too. She’s an amazing player.”
After the two traded pars at the 31st and 32nd holes, the two headed to the par-3 15th, which would turn out to be the final hole of the match. Park, who hit her tee shot at the 15th into the water hazard in both her semifinal match and the morning round of the final, no doubt had thoughts of the pond that fronts the green.
“I just pretended the water wasn’t there,” said Park. “I just hit it on the green, and that’s it.”
That was it.
Kaneko’s tee shot was 65 feet above the hole. After missing her par putt from 5 feet, she conceded the hole, and the match, to Park.
Park becomes the fourth-youngest champion in Girls’ Junior history. Despite her youth and relative inexperience, she understood the significance of her accomplishment.
“It means a lot,” said Park as she looked at the trophy. “It means so much to be on the list of these players.”
The U.S. Girls’ Junior is one of 13 championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association each year, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.