(Pebble Beach, Calif.) - Medalist Lucy Li didn’t need to spend much time on the golf course on Friday. A day after playing 43 holes in winning three matches, the 15-year-old from Redwood Shores, Calif., only required 14 in dispatching Doey Choi, 18, of Australia, to reach the Semifinals of the 70th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Poppy Hills Golf Course.
Four suspended Round-of-16 matches had to be completed on Friday due to fog.
Li, whose 36-hole qualifying score of 11-under-par 131 was one stroke off the championship record, won six consecutive holes from No. 8 to close out first-time U.S. Girls’ Junior competitor Choi, 5 and 4. Li was 2 down after two holes, including a three-putt bogey on the par-4 first, before embarking on a huge rally that began with a 7-foot birdie on the par-4 fifth hole. She eagled the par-5 10th to go 2 up when her long fairway-metal approach shot – “I was just trying to hit it into the [greenside] bunker” – got a fortunate bounce and stopped 10 feet from the flagstick.
From there, she won holes 11, 12 and 13 and halved 14 to close out what has been her quickest match of the week.
“At least I’ll get to rest,” said Li, No. 10 in the latest Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR). “After all that golf [on Thursday], I went home and my feet hurt and my legs hurt, so it will be good to take some time off and get ready for a long day [on Saturday].”
Li will face a familiar foe in fellow past Drive, Chip & Putt national champion Alexa Pano, 13, of Lake Worth, Fla., who eliminated Suzuka Yamaguchi, 17, of Japan, 4 and 3. Pano played the equivalent of 1-under-par golf on the outward nine – with the usual match-play concessions – in building a commanding 5-up lead. In four matches this week, Pano has played just 61 holes.
“I just kind of stayed consistent,” said Pano, who won DCP age-group titles in 2016 and 2017. “I’m definitely excited. Lucy is a good friend and she’s a really strong player, so it should be a really good match.”
The other semifinal will pit No. 2 seed Yealimi Noh, 16, of Concord, Calif., fresh off a record-setting performance in last week’s Girls Junior PGA Championship in Lexington, Ky., against Gina Kim, 18, of Chapel Hill, N.C.
Noh did not lose a hole in defeating incoming Michigan State University freshman Valery Plata, 17, of Colombia, 7 and 5. Noh, who also claimed the Californian Girls Junior State Championship title last month at nearby Monterey Peninsula Country Club, was the equivalent of 3 under par over 13 holes. She reached the par-5 ninth and 10th holes in two shots with 4-irons, halving the former and winning the latter, both with birdies.
Noh seemingly is getting stronger and gaining momentum with each passing round.
“I think I kind of start out a little slow in the beginning, like my other matches and this one, as well, and once I get used to the course and playing [in] a tournament , instead of [just] practicing,” she said. “I’m getting used to it. I get a little in the mode and have that momentum, I guess.”
Kim, who defeated Ashley Gilliam, 17, of Manchester, Tenn., 4 and 3, overcame an early 1-down deficit – Gilliam birdied the first hole – to take a 2-up lead at the turn. The turning point came on the par-4 seventh when Gilliam’s approach found some native area behind the green and she eventually conceded Kim’s birdie. The lead mushroomed to 3 up when Gilliam’s tee shot on No. 12 went out of bounds. Kim won the 14th with a par and closed it out on the next hole.
In four matches this week, Kim has not played beyond the 16th hole. She was extended that far in her suspended Round-of-16 match earlier on Friday, defeating Yushino Yoshihara, 16, of Irvine, Calif., 3 and 2.
The semifinalists receive a two-year exemption to the U.S. Girls’ Junior, provided they are age eligible. The two semifinal winners on Saturday are exempt into next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Golf Club of Tennessee, while the champion earns a spot in next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina.
Alexa Pano is vying to become the fourth 13-year-old to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the first since Lexi Thompson in 2008. At 13 years, 11 months and 2 days, she would be the fourth-youngest champion. Aree Song Wongluekiet was 13 years, 3 months and 6 days in 1999.
This will only be the second time in U.S. Girls’ Junior history that the championship will be extended by a day. In 2008 at Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Conn., the 36-hole final was contested on Sunday after inclement weather wiped out an entire day earlier in the week.
Should Lucy Li and Yealimi Noh make the final match, it would be the first time in 54 years that the top two seeds would meet for the title. Medalist Peggy Conley defeated Laura MacIvor for the 1964 title at Leavenworth (Kan.) Country Club.
Gina Kim is trying to become the second consecutive player with ties to Duke University to win the title. Erica Shepherd, who has committed to play for the Blue Devils in 2019, won last year's championship. Past Duke University players to win the U.S. Girls' Junior include Jamie Koizumi (1992) Beth Bauer (1997) and Leigh Anne Hardin (1998).
Alexa Pano on what she did to pass the time during the nearly six-hour fog delay:
“We made a puzzle. It was really hard, but they gave it to us as a gift [for making the Round of 16], and then we blew bubbles and sat around and talked about how bored we were. So that kind of sums it up.”
Pano on playing for a U.S. Women’s Amateur exemption:
“I would like to play in it. I have the last two years, but I came to the U.S. [Girls’] Junior to win the U.S. [Girls’] Junior. I didn’t come to qualify for another event. So I’m just kind of keeping my head on straight about that.”
Pano on what her dinner of choice has been this week:
“We’ve stopped at Smashburger every night. I haven’t been to In-N-Out yet.”
Lucy Li on how she dealt with the fog delay:
“I think a lot of the girls got here way earlier than I did. I got here like 10:30 [a.m.] because I woke up at like 6:40 and then I saw the delay, so I ate breakfast and then saw it was delayed again, so I went up and then took a nap and just hung out, stretched and then came out [to the course].”
Li on playing fellow Drive, Chip & Putt national champion Pano in the semifinals:
“We’ve played a lot of tournaments together. We hung out a lot this week. It’ll be fun to play against her. I just played with her last week in the [Girls] Junior PGA [Championship].”
Yealimi Noh on her plans to rest before Saturday’s potentially long day:
“Yeah, we are finally having dinner before bed. My caddie (Yoonhee Kim) is happier than I am.”
Noh on playing in the foggy conditions:
“It was definitely a little different, but I kind of liked it. It’s a little challenging and different from when it was bright and sunny [on Thursday afternoon], and I think it just tests everyone’s game and shows how consistent you have to be. You have to be smart, really smart.”
Noh on advancing to the semifinals, the furthest she’s advanced in five U.S. Girls’ Junior starts:
“Yeah, it’s really weird. When you’re on the range with quarterfinals, semifinals, there’s no one on the range, so I was on the range this morning, I was the only one there, and I was like, wow, I’ve never had this situation before … at USGA events.”
Gina Kim on her mental and physical state following the long days and fog suspensions:
“Very tired. Very mentally exhausted and physically exhausted, but I think that’s what helps me become a better player, so I’m ready for it.”
Kim on reaching the semifinals for the first time in four U.S. Girls’ Junior appearances:
“I feel amazing because I thought I was cursed at one point, just sticking around in the Round of 16. But it definitely showed me exactly how much I improved and how much I evolved into a better golfer and I’m really proud of myself for that.”