Chinn Relishes Challenge of No. 1 Seed July 17, 2018 | Springfield, N.J. By Stuart Hall

Kelly Chinn's interesting journey has brought him to the U.S. Junior Amateur, where he's impressed so far in his debut. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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When Kelly Chinn made the second of successive three-putt bogeys just past the midway point of Tuesday’s second stroke-play round, he displayed no sign of panic.

Even with the blemishes, Chinn was at a comfortable 3 under par overall for the 71st U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club and in no danger of missing the 36-hole cut to make match play.

“After the second one at 11, I just told him I wanted a couple of birdies back,” said Daniel Neben, Chinn’s swing coach, who is doubling as his caddie this week. While Chinn only managed a tidy two-putt par from 90 feet at the par-3 12th, he gave Neben five birdies over the final six holes on the Lower Course.

Chinn signed for a 3-under 67 that vaulted him to medalist honors at 8-under 133. He finished two strokes ahead of Ricky Castillo, 17, who advanced to the Round of 16 at last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur, and Australian Karl Vilips, 16, who is playing in his first Junior Amateur after having qualified for the U.S. Amateur in 2016 and 2017.

Afterward, both teacher and student were pleased, but not all that surprised. Even given the fact that Chinn, 15, of Great Falls, Va., is not only playing his first U.S. Junior Amateur, but his first USGA championship, period.

“I was coming in [to the championship] just looking to get a couple under par, maybe even,” Chinn said. “[Monday] I was striping the ball really well and putting well, so my level of expectation might have been a little higher after the first round.”

Neben, the assistant golf professional at TPC Potomac at Avenal Farm in Potomac, Md., has been working with Chinn for 2½ years. He has come to expect the composure his student displayed, especially after the bogeys.

“His golf maturity is off the charts,” Neben said.

Chinn’s father, Colin, has a couple of theories why that may be.

The first is his son’s immersion into the game. Chinn’s grandfather, Choki Kiyuna, loved golf, but didn’t really have anyone to share the game with until Kelly came along. Kiyuna would take his grandson to the driving range and they would hit golf balls together.

“He never really got any lessons early on,” said Colin Chinn. “I loved to watch golf, loved to watch the Golf Channel. I would sit Kelly next to me when he was 2, 3, 4 years old and he would watch. The first time he swung a club, it was really good. I’m a physician and my theory is his brain was imprinting what he saw. He mimicked what he saw the pros doing.”

When Chinn was in kindergarten, a PGA instructor saw his swing in an after-school program and suggested to his parents that Kelly get into a more structured golf program.

The second factor is that Chinn has learned to adapt. His father is a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and the Joint Staff surgeon at the Pentagon, serving as the chief medical advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His ascension to that position has required numerous relocations — six in Kelly’s lifetime.

“It’s been a tremendous influence on my game,” said Chinn of having lived in California, Hawaii and Virginia twice, along with Washington state. “I’ve been able to experience a lot of different conditions and courses. Hawaii, for example, has a lot of wind, so I had to learn how to control my shots. California, there’s the rain and different temperatures. It’s a mix of all the places I have lived and it’s really sharpened my game.”

So has competition.

This past prep golf season, Chinn, as a freshman, won the Virginia Class 6A individual state title and helped Langley High to the state team title. Two years ago, at age 13, Chinn became the youngest player to win the Army Navy Country Club championship. He also won it the following year.

Now that Chinn has advanced to Wednesday’s Round of 64, Neben believes his pupil could be a factor.

“He’s the kind of player in match play who is not long, hits it about 265, 270 off the tee,” Neben said. “But he doesn’t miss fairways and that annoys opponents a lot. Play against someone who doesn’t miss a fairway the entire round or very rarely misses a green and has a birdie putt on practically every single hole, that’s tricky.”

Both of Chinn’s club championship titles were of the match-play variety, as well.

“It’s not about playing against the course, but the opponent, and that’s obviously different than normal golf,” he said. “I love thinking that I have to make this putt or I might lose this hole. I love competing. I love having the pressure on me.”

As the No. 1 seed heading into match play, rest assured the pressure is on.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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