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Junior Extra gurus make their picks

You’ve seen it in Around Campus. But it’s even better in Junior Extra. Welcome to Junior Extra’s premiere round table, where Golfweek's junior golf insiders make their predictions for the 2007 summer:

Who is your boys' player of the year?

Sean Martin: A lot of the top players – Philip Francis, Rickie Fowler and Kevin Tway, especially – are going to play amateur golf, not only to get ready for college, but with hopes of making the Walker Cup team. Those three were invited to the team’s practice session in January. There’s a select few other juniors that have a chance at the team.

I’m picking Peter Uihlein for player of the year. I know, real risky, like picking Florida for the Final Four. Peter won it two years ago, and last year had the kind of season that could’ve been really special if he’d made a few more putts and his opponents had missed some (think Andrew Yun’s 15-footer on the final hole of the FootJoy Invitational). He was also runner-up at the Rolex and a semifinalist at the Polo.

Look for two-time 2006 AJGA invitational winner Andrew Yun and Morgan Hoffmann, who has the early lead in the points race after his Polo win, to make a run at the award.

Eric Soderstrom: I have a feeling this question could be just as difficult to answer in November as it is now. All signs point to Peter Uihlein, who won the Rolex Player of the Year award two years ago without even winning a major. And there’s no question he could pull a Phil Francis this year if he starts to hit more putts, which I figure will happen at least in spurts. But I also see guys like Andrew Yun, Richard Lee and Morgan Hoffmann or maybe even Cody Gribble and Bud Cauley making some noise. (Also, Sihwan Kim, if he plays a lot.)

To keep this interesting (and go against Sean), I’m going to pick Yun, even though I know he’s been struggling with his game of late (especially at the Mountain Matches). I’m sure some people think Yun is on the brink of a letdown summer, but his strong performances at the Ping and Polo late last year make it hard to believe he won’t keep it up.

Of course, it could be that I just like the sound of a Yun-Uihlein rivalry, if only because it kind of rhymes.

And I need something to write about.

Dan Mirocha: I like Andrew Yun’s under-the-radar attitude and off-the-charts game. I met him at The Ping Invitational last October where he birdied five of his last 10 holes to hold off Rickie Fowler for the win. Earlier in the year he won the FootJoy Invitiational. I asked Yun if he considers himself among the upper echelon of junior golfers. He sidestepped the question and said he doesn’t think about where he ranks. With another summer like he had last year, Yun won’t have to worry about ranking anywhere else but No. 1.

Who is your girls’ player of the year?

Martin: Assuming Esther Choe doesn’t play much junior golf, I think it’s hard to pick against Mina Harigae, who said she’d adjusted to swing changes and then went out and won the Verizon Junior Heritage by five shots in February.

I’m going to go with Vicky Hurst, though. She admitted having problems closing out tournaments last year, leading to four runners-up. If she overcomes that, she could be hard to beat. She’s the kind of player who can overpower a golf course, and when she’s on, run away with a tournament. Her two AJGA wins last year came by a combined seven shots.

Soderstrom: Say hello to Stephanie Kono. Kono, Golfweek’s third-ranked junior, had three top-5 finishes in AJGA invitationals last year, including a pair of top-3s, ending the year with a tough 21-hole loss to Esther Choe in the semifinals of the Polo Golf Junior Classic. She has never won an AJGA event, but neither had Phil Francis until the beginning of last season. Kono is one of the most pleasant girls you’ll ever meet, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of her great smile this year peeking out from behind trophies. She’s also good friends with Tadd Fujikawa, who’s certainly built up enough good fortune in the past year to share with Kono. Not that she’ll need it.

Mirocha: Vicky Hurst has plenty of experience playing against the world’s best golfers. She played in the U.S. Women’s Open last year and will play in the LPGA’s Ginn Open next month. Hurst, who notched two AJGA titles last year, would have won the U.S. Girls’ Junior had she not fallen apart on the final three holes. She hits it farther and straighter than anyone else, but it’s her gritty determination and desire to win that sets her apart from her competition. Plus, she’s got a great hat collection.

What will be the story of the year?

Martin: Sihwan Kim wins the U.S. Amateur. It’s being held at the site as his U.S. Junior victory – Olympic Club, near San Francisco. Kim loves playing in California and he loves match play. It took Philip Francis to knock Kim out of the past two U.S. Juniors – in the Round of 16 in 2005 and last year’s quarterfinals. Kim also advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links.

Even better, a Kim win would add to the parallels between himself and Tiger Woods. Kim is the first to admit that the coincidences are nothing more than that, but they’re still fun. When Kim won the 2004 U.S. Junior, he was the second-youngest champion behind Woods. The same would be the case if he claimed this year’s Am. He’d also be the only player besides Woods to win the Junior and the Am. To add icing to the cake, Kim is headed to Stanford, where Woods played for two years.

Soderstrom: Tadd Fujikawa, for the second consecutive year. But it won’t be because he qualifies for the U.S. Open or makes the cut in a PGA Tour event. Fujikawa struggled last year when he wasn’t playing in Hawaii, and you can bet there have been some rumblings in the junior ranks that Fujikawa only plays well on the Islands. This summer, the former national Judo champion kicks that label deep into the Pacific Ocean.

Honorable mention: Bud Cauley (4-0 at both the Canon Cup and Mountain Matches) continues his match play streak, winning every match at the U.S. Junior, U.S. Amateur, Canon Cup, Walker Cup, Polo Junior Golf Classic, every one-on-one basketball game with Kevin Tway, and every Tiger Woods PGA Tour ‘07 match on Nintendo Wii.

Mirocha: Ben Curtis. Scott Hamilton. Birdie Kim. Hilary Lunke. All were surprise major champions on the PGA and LPGA Tours. I see the same thing happening this summer in junior golf. In fact, I’m rooting for it. Michael Muscatell, ranked No. 289 at the time, won the Scott Robertson Memorial last May against a field that included Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein, Bank Vongvanij and Philip Francis. Here’s hoping another Cinderella takes the stage this summer. Hey AJGA, how about extending major invites to No. 340 Payne Gniewek and No. 259 Alexis Holmes?

• • •

Sean Martin is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail smartin@golfweek.com.

Eric Soderstrom is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail esoderstrom@golfweek.com.

Dan Mirocha is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail dmirocha@golfweek.com.

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