BRYAN, Texas –– A year ago at the Junior PGA Championship, Samantha Wagner held the lead early on and was two shots back heading into the final round. Yet, by the end of the tournament, she found herself at the bottom of the leaderboard.
Playing some of her best golf of the year through three rounds, Wagner woke up the morning of last year’s final round and didn’t feel right.
“I was immediately sick,” said Wagner, who got food poisoning a day earlier.
Despite feeling ill, Wagner decided to play. She did a light warm-up and tried to stay as hydrated as possible. She started off strong, too, playing her first 10 holes in even par and missing just one green. She did miss nine birdie putts from inside of 15 feet, but it was also an example of how strong her iron and wedge play was.
But even though her game was sharp, Wagner was still struggling physically.
“I stopped a couple of times because I had to,” Wagner said. “Then I took a medical break after 10 (holes) and when they said it was over I was ready to go.”
But just as she was ready to begin her 11th hole, Wagner collapsed. Her tournament and chance at victory were over.
“They pretty much took the scorecard from me,” said Wagner, who dropped from 2 under to the bottom of the leaderboard with a JWD next to her name. The winner, Amy Lee, would finish at 5 under.
A year later, Wagner opened with an even-par 71 Tuesday at Miramont Country Club and currently sits tied for fifth, five shots off the lead after the first round.
Playing in her fourth Junior PGA, Wagner is still searching for her first victory in the championship. She came close two years ago before finishing runner-up to Ariya Jutanugarn.
But at the same time, she’s also looking for her first top 10 in a high-level junior tournament since last year’s Ping Invitational in October.
Wagner said the food poisoning took a toll on her after last year’s Junior PGA. She couldn’t eat much in the following weeks and it affected her performance at the Junior Solheim Cup. She tied for eighth at Ping, but still shot 79-72-76, and didn’t make match play at the Polo Golf Junior Classic.
After a T-44 showing at the Annika Invitational in January, Wagner, struggling with her swing, switched back to her old coach of six years, Kevin Smeltz. She’s since finished 20th or better in six straight notable junior events, including make the Round of 32 at last week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior, although she’s yet to notch a finish better than T-15.
“It’s been six months and my swing feels so much better now,” said Wagner, ranked 23rd in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings.
Now, she just needs a high finish to validate her hard work improving her swing. A win or second-place finish this week at the Junior PGA would earn her a second Junior Ryder Cup appearance. It would also make up for last year’s disappointing finish.
“Coming so close two years ago and then last year having the lead and being two shots back in the final day,” Wagner said, “it’s definitely my goal to win.”