DALY CITY, Calif. –- Minjia Luo stands barely more than 5 feet tall, and was spotted Wednesday hitting driver at a par 3 (the 194-yard 15th). She only averages 200 yards off the tee, but early in her first-round match against Katelyn Dambaugh at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Luo held a 3-up lead.
Dambaugh and Luo couldn’t play the game more differently. Dambaugh is a left-handed long bomber who goes for everything. Luo’s power is in a dangerously accurate pair of hybrids (22 and 25 degrees) and a putter that bails her out when necessary. She began the match against Dambaugh by making a 40-footer for birdie.
To all who think Lake Merced Golf Club – playing at 6,291 yards this week – favors long hitters, reference Luo.
“She hits is so short but it is literally straight every single time,” Dambaugh said later in amazement. “… She’s just straight as anything.”
Luo, who has committed to Northwestern for the fall of 2013, blitzed Dambaugh in the opening holes of Merced. Attribute most of that to smart, consistent play.
“(The course is) narrow and the greens are challenging,” Luo said. “I just remember, don’t get it in the rough.”
Luo was 3 up at No. 7 before she began to lose ground. By No. 15, Dambaugh, a South Carolina commit, had returned the match to all square. At No. 17, Luo had returned to her old ways. Dambaugh outdrove her by about 50 yards at the 364-yard par 4 as Luo put her tee shot on the lip of a bunker. She pulled a fairway wood and stuck it on the green, just next to Dambaugh. They halved with pars before Luo lost the 18th with a bogey.
For Dambaugh, runner-up at this championship in 2010, Luo’s strategy and short-game prowess was a shock. She knows exactly what to expect in the next match, against defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn.
“If I just relax and let everything come to me and be patient, I think that’s just how I have to play instead of getting so frustrated and trying to do it all myself,” she said.
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QUICK TURNAROUND: Rinko Mitsunaga very nearly didn’t get to play on Wednesday. She was one of 12 players who had to play off for the final four spots on the match-play bracket. Luckily, Mitsunaga had been in that position just a week prior.
The 15-year-old from Roswell, Ga., won an eight-for-one playoff at her U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier to earn the second alternate spot. That experience, plus the fact that she had good friend and fellow competitor Megan Khang on her bag for the extra holes at Lake Merced, got her through.
Mitsunaga drew Jordan Ferreira, the 2011 Washington State Junior Player of the Year, in the Round of 64, and advanced without sweat. She trailed on only one hole before winning, 3 and 2. She was back to carrying – or rather, pushing – her own bag in that match, which she admits is a bit of a lonely endeavor. Now, she’s hoping for some crowds.
At the U.S. Women’s Open earlier this month, Mitsunaga’s first, she drew a practice round alongside Natalie Gulbis, who might be the best teacher on tour when it comes to working a crowd. Mitsunaga took note, and now she’d rather play with fans than without them.
“My mental game is so much better after playing the Open and even though I didn’t play well, it just helped a lot,” she said. “Especially when people clap for you, I used to never wave but now, after the Open, I start to wave and it feels a lot better.”
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WELCOME BACK: If it feels like Yueer Cindy Feng’s name hasn’t graced a leaderboard in ages, well, it’s because it hasn’t. Feng has been out of tournament action for the better part of a year trying to get back to 100 percent.
Feng, who owns four AJGA invitational titles, can’t name any certain thing that was ailing her, but instead said she just had bits and pieces that hurt.
“I was weak all over so I was afraid to practice,” she said.
Feng defeated Gabriella Then, 3 and 2, on Wednesday, which was a day during which she said neither played well. Then had the advantage for most of the match before Feng took over at No. 12 and quietly built her lead to 3 up. Still, she said she didn’t feel in control until she was dormie at No. 16.
The U.S. Girls’ Junior is only the start of a schedule rebuilding process for Feng. Mostly, she’s just pleased to be competing.
“I was just always on the range and no one I know was on the range because they were at tournaments,” she said.
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LAST RIDE IN: The final match of the day was an all-Hawaii slugfest with an asterisk. As in, Alexandra Kaui, 16, might have Kapolei, Hawaii listed next to her name, but she hasn’t lived there since she was 13 years old.
Kaui, who now lives in Las Vegas, took on good friend Allisen Corpuz from Honolulu and staged a massive eleventh-hour comeback. Kaui was 3 down after nine holes, and cut it to 1 down by No. 14.. After losing another hole at 15, Kaui gave herself a miniature pep talk. She won the next three holes.
“I didn’t want to play extra holes,” she reasoned.
As Corpuz unraveled at the par-5 18th, twice hitting trees on the right side of the fairway on her way to a double bogey, Kaui hit what she calls the shot of the day: a 110-yard A-wedge to 8 feet for birdie.
Kaui has committed to Oklahoma for the fall of 2013. It may seem a strange choice for a former island dweller, but top-notch Sooner facilities made it an easy decision. That and the quaint college scenery.
“I love the red brick buildings.”
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SHORT SHOTS: The biggest comeback of the day belongs to Casey Danielson. The Wisconsin native was 4 down to Stephanie Lau at No. 13, but claimed the next five holes to win, 1 up. . . . Like Mitsunaga, Julia Beck took full advantage of the spot on the match-play bracket she earned courtesy of Tuesday’s playoff. Beck claimed arguably the biggest upset of the day, beating No. 3 seed Annie Park, 4 and 3. . . . Not surprisingly, Lydia Ko, the World No. 1 female amateur advanced, 7 and 6. World No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn also advanced, 6 and 5, and so did World No. 8 Minjee Lee, 7 and 6.
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ROUND OF 64
Ariya Jutanugarn def. Ji Eun Baik, 6 and 5
Katelyn Dambaugh def. Minjia Luo, 1 up
Amy Lee def. Jennifer Yu, 5 and 4
Ashlan Ramsey def. Danielle Lee, 5 and 4
Casie Cathrea def. Samantha Wagner, 5 and 3
Karen Chung def. Courtney Dow, 19 holes
Alice Jeong def. Lili Kha-Tu Vu, 4 and 3
Anne Freman def. Isabella Skinner, 20 holes
Rinko Mitsunaga def. Jordan Ferreira, 3 and 2
Shawn Rennegarbe def. Bryana Nguyen, 5 and 4
Jisoo Keel def. Erica Herr, 4 and 3
Kelli Murphy def. Anne Cheng, 21 holes
Casey Danielson def. Stephanie Lau, 1 up
Megan Khang def. Kathleen Gallagher, 5 and 3
Minjee Lee def. Taylor Totland, 7 and 6
Ju Hee Bae def. Mika Liu, 2 and 1
Lydia Ko def. Mikayla Harmon, 7 and 6
Hee Wook Choi def. Cha Cha Willhoite, 4 and 3
Nicole Morales def. Lauren Johnson, 9 and 8
Kathleen Scavo def. Linsey McCurdy, 1 up
Gabby Barker def. Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, 1 up
Summar Roachell def. McKenzie Neisen, 5 and 4
Euna Pak def. Brogan McKinnon, 2 and 1
Yueer Cindy Feng def. Gabriella Then, 3 and 2
Julia Beck def. Annie Park, 4 and 3
Yu Liu def. Lyberty Anderson, 3 and 2
Su-Hyun Oh def. Lydia Choi, 19 holes
Alison Lee def. Maddie Szeryk, 3 and 2
Marijosse Navarro def. Bailey Tardy, 3 and 2
Lauren Diaz-Yi def. Haley Mills, 4 and 3
Elisabeth Bernabe def. Maria Jose Fassi, 5 and 3
Alexandra Kaui def. Allisen Corpuz, 1 up