CLEVELAND – It almost happened three weeks ago in San Francisco. Instead, the top two female amateurs in the world will face off in the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
How’s that for drama?
The script couldn’t have played out any better at The Country Club, unless of course Lydia Ko, 15, and Ariya Jutanugarn, 16, had found themselves on opposite sides of a USGA bracket, only to face in the final. Still, this will suffice.
“Lately, she’s been playing really good,” top-ranked Ko had said at the beginning of the week. Ko and Jutanugarn both were upset in the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior on July 20 before they had the opportunity to play. Safe to say, however, they’ve sized each other up.
“It’s good that I have a chance to play against her,” said Jutanugarn, who is well aware of Ko’s No. 1 ranking.
Ko, meanwhile, says Jutanugarn is someone whose game carries a strong reputation across the globe. The two have never played together.
That Saturday’s semifinal match takes place in the morning as opposed to the afternoon, like the quarterfinals, bodes well for Ko. She’s more of an early-morning player, even if she does cherish her sleep.
“I don’t really like playing in the afternoons,” Ko said.
Ko’s mother Tina, who doesn’t play golf but knows Ko’s game well, continues to provide a wise, steadying presence on her daughter’s bag. Ko repeats the message Tina often delivers thusly: “I’m much younger than her and she’s had much more experience in life.”
For Jutanugarn, that steadying influence is older sister Moriya, 18. Moriya lost to Danielle Kang in the final match at last year’s Women’s Am and remains by Ariya’s side this week after losing in the Round of 32. Despite persistent rain showers on Friday, Moriya pushed Ariya’s bag around the course and dutifully read greens.
It’s reminiscent of last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior, when Ariya, with Moriya looping, filled the Jutanugarn trophy case with its sole USGA hardware after a typical week of solid play and many birdies. That week, however, she didn’t have to get through Ko.
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Nicole Zhang stood to the side of the 17th green in disbelief. After defeating Su-Hyun Oh, 2 and 1, the 20-year-old explained that she never imagined she could make it to the semifinals at the Women’s Am. Nearby, the crowd erupted. Jaye Marie Green had just won her quarterfinal match Marijosse Navarro to draw the spot against Zhang.
Zhang, the former Notre Dame standout who will play for Northwestern in the fall, has been getting calls and texts all week from players, friends and coaches. No one, she says, is as excited as older brother Dustin, 22.
While working for an investment banking company in New York City, Dustin has been switching the TVs in his office away from the stock exchange and onto the Golf Channel to look for his sister. He gets the importance of Zhang’s week, too.
“It’s huge because these are the top amateurs from around the world,” Zhang said of being of of the final four competitors still standing on Friday. “I saw I was ranked 787 in the world and I kind of laughed because I know I’m not that bad.”
Green, 18, has been keeping an equally close eye on television coverage of the event but still has been able to catch herself on the broadcast. So far, she’s only seen taped footage from her friends. Green had several airtime-worthy birdies on Friday on her way to a 2-and-1 victory over Marijosse Navarro.
When she dropped the final putt at the 17th green, she said breathlessly, she was all excitement. It’s especially meaningful to be headed to the semifinals now that her amateur days are numbered. Green heads to LPGA Q-School this fall rather than college.
Adrenaline aside, at the end of a long, soggy day in Cleveland, Green was ready to chill.
“At a certain time, I just wind down,” she said of prepping for the next match.
That could take a while.
• • •
Nicole Zhang def. Su-Hyun Oh, 2 and 1
Jaye Marie Green def. Marijosse Navarro, 2 and 1
Lydia Ko def. Paula Reto, 3 and 1
Ariya Jutanugarn def. Erynne Lee, 5 and 4