By Rex Hoggard
Nicole Perrot concluded a whirlwind four-month stretch that started and ended with a stunning victory and hint of what is to come.
The reigning U.S. Girls’ Junior champion stormed from five shots back Oct. 8 to join Chanin Puntawong in the winners’ circle at the inaugural Golfweek/Ashworth Top 100 at ChampionsGate Golf Resort.
While Puntawong’s journey to the top of the boys’ division was all but assured with a second-round 64 that included nine birdies and a bogey, Perrot needed a closing 68 to place an exclamation point on a stretch that included her U.S. Girls’ triumph, a runner-up finish at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and her first taste of professional golf at the SBC/Futures Tour Championship earlier this month.
“I didn’t know for sure where I was. I was just trying to play my game and play the best I could,” said Perrot, a 17-year-old native of Santiago, Chile.
She may not have had the luxury of watching a leaderboard, but from the 14th tee Perrot had a front-row view of who she was chasing when leader Nicole Hage of Coral Springs, Fla., hit her approach to birdie range on the par-5 13th.
Perrot answered with a 6-iron to 4 feet for her fifth birdie of the day to cut Hage’s lead to a shot.
“I knew we were close so I just tried to focus on my golf,” said Perrot, who plans to play in the Futures Tour Qualifying School tournament as an amateur in November.
Perrot, who planned to fly back to Chile Oct. 9 to finish high school, took the lead for good with a 4-footer for birdie at the 16th. Hage, who struggled on the National Course’s greens, failed to convert eight birdie attempts inside 10 feet and needed 35 putts in her final-round 73.
“It’s frustrating and I want to get mad at myself but I’m 2 under for the event and that’s good,” said Hage, who recorded her third runner-up finish of the year. “My putting is bad and I know I have a lot of work to do.
“I’m so sick of finishing second. I don’t care if it is Annika Sorenstam that I lose to, if I got second I don’t like it.”
Hage finished at 214, a shot behind Perrot and two shots ahead of Aimee Cho of Orlando, Fla., who emerged as the early leader after the 36-hole, first-day marathon that featured a one-hour lightning delay and forced 18 players, including Perrot, to return early the next morning and finish their second rounds.
Cho, the field’s highest-ranked girl at No. 12 in the Golfweek/Titleist Performance Index, closed with 76.
Puntawong, 14, started the final round with a five-shot lead and cruised to victory after a 2-over 74 on the International Course.
Puntawong, who was born in Thailand and lives in Bradenton, Fla., posted rounds of 71-64-74 for a 7-under 209. Daniel Im and Ryan Cochran finished three shots back at 212.
Puntawong has had plenty of experience as a front-runner. He led the AJGA Henry-Griffitts Rome Junior Classic in August by five shots entering the final round and went on to win by three.
“I was just trying to make pars or keep it right around par,” Puntawong said. “It’s been a very good week hitting the ball.”
After shooting a 3-over 39 on the front nine, Puntawong’s lead had dwindled to three. But, birdies at Nos. 11 and 12 put him in front for good.
Puntawong credited his last two weeks of technical practice at the Brandenton Academy, where he is in eighth grade, for his good ball striking.
“It was great to win this event. I am hoping to be ranked in the top 25 now,” he said.
– Lance Ringler contributed