PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Standing on the threshold of the famed Bear Trap at PGA National, Scott Scheffler let loose his first bit of outward emotion of the day. Scheffler, the man of the week at the Polo Golf Junior Classic, was losing control of this final, and the holes were dwindling.
Matched against Adam Wood for the title at the final AJGA invitational title of the year, Scheffler’s putting let him down on Friday for the first time in seven rounds at PGA National. When he failed to complete an up-and-down par from 5 feet at the par-4 14th, Scheffler, of Dallas, fell to 2 down against Wood. It was as much as he had trailed all morning. He shouted loudly, threw his golf ball in the air then let it smack against his palm.
At that point Wood, a 17-year-old Duke commit from Zionsville, Ind., figured the last thing he needed to attempt was heroics. But as the two made their way around the big bronze bear statue at the 15th tee and faced a head wind at the watery par 3, that’s what Wood produced.
Wood pulled a 5-iron for that shot, playing about 180 yards, and left it about 8 feet short of the hole. Scheffler couldn’t match it, but both made par. Two more pars at the par-4 16th left Wood 2 up with two to play. He pulled almost exactly the same trick at the par-3 17th, this time stuffing a 6-iron to less than 10 feet. Scheffler, on the far left side of the green, didn’t get his birdie putt close and conceded Wood’s birdie. It’s the first Polo title in two starts for Wood.
“This is definitely up there,” Wood said later, beaming. “It’s one of the best tournaments in the world.”
On the eve of the championship match, Wood knew Scheffler would be a handful. Scheffler had won the stroke-play title at the beginning of the week, and cruised through the match-play bracket, seemingly without difficulty.
“I knew I had to adjust accordingly because he could make a few birdies,” Wood said. “I just ended up playing my best golf today, really.”
Scheffler and Wood turned out to be an evenly matched pair. Wood calls Scheffler an accuracy player with a strong iron game. Scheffler thought if he had any advantage against Wood, it would be on the greens.
The two players were all square at the turn, after Scheffler dropped a 30-footer for birdie to win No. 9. The turning point came at Nos. 10 and 11, where Wood made birdies. He nearly birdied 12, and from that point on he could feel the momentum in his corner.
“I was playing some of my best golf,” Wood said of that stretch.
Wood made it to the semifinals at last year’s Polo, but fell to Parker Derby. This year, Wood’s game peaked when he needed it – against Scheffler.
Wood also won the Western Junior in 2011, and is No. 11 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings. He can tell the difference in his game since playing PGA National a year ago.
“Probably a little bit of discipline, knowing what I can and can’t do, plus a little bit of consistency, a little bit of maturity,” he said of what he has learned as a player. “I feel like a lot of parts of my game have just slowly developed.”
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Ariya Jutanugarn marked her ball on Friday with a large sparkling ball mark shaped like a cupcake. It was not, she explained, to celebrate her 17th birthday, which also fell on that day. She wasn’t even sure she would celebrate, she said with a giggle. One final AJGA invitational title might be enough.
Jutanugarn had announced at the beginning of the week, during her Player of the Year acceptance speech at the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet, that the Polo would be her final junior event. Ladies European Tour Qualifying School begins Dec. 6, and Jutanugarn has entered.
The crowd of players, parents and assorted industry members laughed that night when Jutanugarn answered a question from an interviewer about whether she would win this week with a confident, “I will.” She made good on the promise.
“I feel sad, but I’m still happy because I won. So sad because it’s so fun to play in AJGA (events). I play three years, and (got) a lot of experience,” she said.
A year ago, Jutanugarn missed the stroke-play cut at this event. This year, she was co-medalist with Esther Lee. Jutanugarn’s road to the championship match wasn’t easy, and included tough matches against Amy Lee and Simin Feng. Her closest match was against defending champion Nicole Morales in the semifinals. Jutanugarn was 2 down to Morales after five holes but eventually won, 4 and 3.
Something rare happened in Friday’s final against Angel Yin: Jutanugarn was frequently outmatched off the tee. Jutanugarn is known for her long tee ball, but the 14-year-old Yin, of Arcadia, Calif., continually put it past her. It’s something about Yin that drew whispers when she teed it up at Blackwolf Run earlier in the summer for the U.S. Women’s Open.
“She’s a really good driver; she drives it so long,” Jutanugarn said.
Still, it’s difficult to unseat Jutanugarn in a match-play setting. She won, 5 and 4.
From Palm Beach Gardens, Jutanugarn will return to California for a few weeks of fine-tuning with swing coach Craig Chapman. Then it’s off to Marrakech, Morocco, for LET Q-School.
One last title seemed a fitting close for the smiley kid from Thailand. But one has to think it won’t be long before she wins one on the next level.