Kang medals, eyes 1st U.S. Girls’ Junior title
PINEHURST, N.C. – Danielle Kang wanted one last shot at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, and she’s making the most of it this week at the Country Club of North Carolina. Despite graduating from high school a semester early so she could join the Pepperdine roster this spring, Kang has yet to celebrate her 18th birthday, and so she remained eligible to compete on a blistering hot week in North Carolina.
So far, it’s been another success story for Kang, who won medalist honors Tuesday after shooting 3-under 141. Add it to her collection, which already includes a medal from stroke-play qualifying at last year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur. The thought of it makes Kang, who displays an incredible calm while on the golf course, break out in a wide grin.
Not just the thought of the medal, that is, but what it represents.
U.S. Girls' Junior: Stroke play recap
“Hey, it’s my last one,” Kang said of tournament, which will effectively mark the end of her junior golf career. “I want to come back. It’s sad that I can’t come back anymore, you know?”
Kang, already a Golfweek All-American in her short time with the Waves, doesn’t view the tournament any differently despite spending a semester in the college ranks. She wasn’t the only one in the field representing the college contingent, and despite being atop the leaderboard, maybe not even the most conspicuous. As the nation’s top juniors battled for a coveted match play spot, 108 college coaches roamed the fairways and pine needle-covered rough.
“College tournament or junior tournament, they’re all just competitive rounds so . . . I don’t really see the difference,” Kang said of the Junior. “You’re still fighting for the trophy.”
One thing that is about to change? Her plan of attack. Kang played it safe Tuesday on a course she calls a good fit for her game, but that will go out the window when match play rolls around.
“I’ll be more aggressive now,” she said. “No more safe plays, no more hit the green, 2-putt. I gotta go at it.”
Kang, who spent a good portion of the afternoon hanging around the course despite the oppressive heat – is as good for the U.S. Girls’ Junior as the competition is for her. That’s especially true during a week where young phenoms – and past champions – Alexis Thompson and Jenny Shin are absent from the field after joining the pro ranks. Curtis Cup star Jessica Korda also chose not to play in North Carolina.
Displaying her reliable style of play, Kang was also one of few players to effectively conquer the Country Club of North Carolina as scores soared. Just three players posted 36-hole totals in the red.
What’s making for such high totals? Top-ranked Victoria Tanco, playing in the afternoon, noted that the soft greens were a little unpredictable after so much foot traffic, and said she also struggled out of the rough in the first round.
Tanco rebounded from a first-round 80 to post a second-round 73, which vaulted her 41 spots up the leaderboard before the scores are essentially wiped and matches begin.
“I just thought today, just go out there and do your best and try to hit straighter than yesterday,” Tanco said of cutting seven shots from her first-round effort.
Ginger Howard, meanwhile, is thriving at the Country Club of North Carolina. With younger sister Robbi on the bag this week – an accomplished player herself – Howard is chasing what would be her second major tournament victory here after winning the Trusted Choice Big “I” in 2008. It set up a good vibe for Howard, especially as she closed her second round with birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 (she started on 10) to get to even par for the day and 2 under for the tournament.
“Honestly, I just thought to play it safe the whole time this back nine and the birdies would come,” she said. “That’s usually what I think if I’m struggling.”
The relative unknown who made a big move into match play as more experienced players struggled was 12-year-old Megan Khang, who posted a 1-under 143. Khang said she surprised herself with a first-round 70, but was pleased she could back it up in the second round and coast very safely to match play with a 73. That had been her one goal entering the tournament after failing to advance last year.
“I felt really good coming into the second day,” she said. “I just played like I did yesterday. It didn’t turn out like yesterday, but close.”
Khang stumbled at the end of her round, going 2 over in her final five holes after consecutive birdies at Nos. 12 and 13. She’s feeling confident heading into match play because she knows it’s a format where anything can happen.
“I actually have not gone through match play a lot of times, but I do love match play so it’s going to be fun,” she said.
Gyeol Park carded the lowest score Tuesday with a 3-under 69 that vaulted her into fourth place at even-par 144, one shot ahead of Mariko Tumangan (70).
Yueer Cindy Feng, showing signs of returning to the hot streak that carried her to two AJGA invitational titles earlier this fall, posted a second consecutive 73 to finish sixth, despite struggling to make birdies. She only had two in her second round, and both were courtesy of 4-footers.
The slate won’t be wiped clean for the start of match play until Wednesday morning, as the day ended when an 11-for-7 playoff was called for darkness with six players still remaining to play off for the final five spots. Among the six players set to return to the Country Club of North Carolina Wednesday morning to complete the playoff is Luz Alejandra Cangrejo, a semifinalist at last year’s U.S.Girls’ Junior who will play for Duke in the fall.