Girls' Junior Attracts Stellar Field July 13, 2012 | Daly City, Calif. By David Shefter, USGA

Six-time U.S. Girls' Junior participant Alison Lee, of Valencia, Calif., has made the cut in two U.S. Women's Opens. (John Mummert/USGA)

The world No. 1 is here.

So is the defending champion. As are two past U.S. Girls’ Junior runners-up, along with a player who has made two cuts in a U.S. Women’s Open. The 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links runner-up is in the field. So is a member of the victorious Georgia team from last fall’s USGA Women’s State Team Championship.

There are also seven competitors currently ranked among the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking supported by the USGA and The R&A. Four players also represented their countries at the 2010 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina.

Yes, the field for the 64th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club outside San Francisco arguably is one of the strongest in the event’s history.

"We’re thrilled," said Sarah Haas, chairman of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship Committee.

The competition is headlined by defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn, 16, of Thailand, who is looking to become just the third player in history to successfully defend her title. Only Judy Eller (1957-58) and recent World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Hollis Stacy (1969-71) have achieved the feat. Jutanugarn is having another solid season, having recently won the Women’s Western Amateur, defeating her 17-year-old sister, Moriya, in the final. Moriya, who was the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur runner-up, chose not to play the Girls’ Junior in favor of this week’s North and South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

One player who did make a last-minute decision to play was 15-year-old Lydia Ko of New Zealand, the top-ranked female amateur who earned low-amateur honors at last week’s U.S. Women’s Open. Getting Ko to commit to the Girls’ Junior was a coup for USGA officials. Ko had originally not filed an entry for the championship – she would have been exempt based on her world ranking – but became eligible again when she made the 36-hole cut at the Women’s Open.

Roberta Bolduc, a USGA Rules official who is a past chairman of the Women’s Committee, contacted Ko and her family after the final round, giving her the cell number for Donna Mummert, the director of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. Mummert was contacted that evening and she informed Ko that a decision needed to be made by Tuesday, so the spot could be filled by an alternate if Ko eschewed the exemption.

The USGA files blank entries for any golfer who becomes exempt for the championship after the deadline. Until 2012, qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open was an automatic exemption into all women’s championships for that year; however, now only those who complete 72 holes at the Women’s Open are exempt.

So when Ko achieved that feat last week at Blackwolf Run, Ko had played her way into a Girls’ Junior spot. At the time, Ko also was contemplating flying to France for the Evian Masters before returning to the U.S. for the Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in Cleveland, which starts Aug. 6. This past Tuesday, Ko informed the USGA that she was going to play the Girls’ Junior.

"Certainly everyone at the club was excited when we shared the message," said Mummert. She was here on Wednesday.

Ko made an immediate impression. She played a practice round with Mitch Lowe, the husband of Lake Merced General Manager Donna Lowe and one of the top playing club professionals on the West Coast. Lowe recently qualified for the 2012 PGA Championship. He was very impressed, said Donna Lowe, adding that Ko also played with Merton Goode, a Lake Merced member and former member of the USGA Executive Committee.

With Ko and Jutanugarn in the field, the Girls’ Junior could boast the Nos. 1 and 3 players in the world, according to the rankings. The world No. 4, Minjee Lee of Australia, also is entered, along with No. 21 Su-Hyun Oh of Australia; No. 29 Casey Danielson, of Osceola, Wis.; No. 32 Nicole Morales, of South Salem, N.Y.; and No. 44 Karen Chung, of Livingston, N.J., who was the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior runner-up to Lexi Thompson, now a member of the LPGA Tour. Chung is competing in her fifth Girls’ Junior.

Eight players in the field were in the U.S. Women’s Open field last week at Blackwolf Run. Besides Ko, Alison Lee, 17, of Valencia, Calif., made the cut for a second time in three years. As a 14-year-old, Lee survived the cut in the 2009 Women’s Open at Saucon Valley C.C., shooting a final-round 70. It will be Lee’s sixth Girls’ Junior appearance.

Elisabeth Bernabe, of Anaheim Hills, Calif.; Jisoo Keel, of Canada; Megan Khang, of Rockland, Mass.; Rinko Mitsunaga, of Roswell, Ga.; Hannah O’Sullivan, of Cupertino, Calif.; Annie Park, of Levittown, N.Y.; and Gigi Stoll, of Beaverton, Ore., failed to make the cut.

Left-hander Katelyn Dambaugh, of Goose Creek, S.C., was the runner-up two years ago at the Girls’ Junior to Doris Chen, who played in this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, while Ashlan Ramsey, of Milledgeville, Ga., was the runner-up at last month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links to Kyung Kim, who also competed in the 2012 Women’s Open. And Rachel Dai, of Milton, Ga., helped Georgia claim its third USGA Women’s State Team title last fall at The Landings in Savannah, Ga.

Fifteen-year-old Marijosse Navarro, of Mexico, not only represented her country at the 2010 Women’s World Amateur, but she also won her country’s national amateur championship this year. Ko (New Zealand), Maria Torres (Puerto Rico) and Lucia Polo (Guatemala) also played the Women’s World Amateur in Argentina two years ago.

And if you’re looking for local favorites, O’Sullivan and Casie Cathrea, of Livermore, Calif., are worth keeping an eye on. O’Sullivan, 14, is a junior member at The Olympic Club, which hosted last month’s U.S. Open and is a few miles from Lake Merced, while Cathrea, 16, is one of Northern California’s top players, having committed to attend Oklahoma State in the fall of 2013. This will be Cathrea’s fourth Girls’ Junior.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.