Paolucci wins Thunderbird; Feng defends title
Anthony Paolucci didn’t take any chances Monday in closing out his first AJGA victory at the Thunderbird International Junior.
Knowing he had a three-shot cushion as he walked off the 17th green at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., Paolucci pulled a 3-wood at the par-5 18th. His driver had failed to find the fairway during the first two rounds, and this was a time when accuracy was important.
“I knew a 3-wood would put me in play,” he said. “I had a good chance to go for it, but I didn’t want to risk anything.”
Paolucci birdied the 18th, one of three birdies in a final-round 69 that moved him to 12-under 204 for the tournament. He also threw in an eagle at the par-5 seventh – his second eagle there in three rounds.
As Paolucci remained steady on the back nine, Denny McCarthy mounted a charge following a double bogey at No. 10. McCarthy had three birdies in his final four holes for a 67. He finished the tournament at 9-under 207, three shots behind Paolucci.
As the round progressed, Paolucci continued to shoot for 13 under, knowing that number would secure his first invitational title. He also knew all the players within seven shots of him could still make a run at the title.
“I hit in the (desert) a handful of times, but for the most part I put the ball in play, hit a lot of 3-woods, didn’t hit very many drivers ... and I made some putts,” Paolucci said.
Paolucci, who has committed to USC, grabbed the lead from the start, winning his first AJGA title in wire-to-wire fashion. He was the only player in the field to record three sub-70 rounds, and though his lead dwindled from time to time, Paolucci made 14 birdies and two eagles during the three-round tournament to secure his place at the top.
The Thunderbird title comes after a near-miss at the first AJGA invitational of 2010, the HP Boys Championship at Carlton Woods. Paolucci also has runner-up finishes at the 2009 FootJoy Invitational and the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur. He won the 2008 Junior PGA Championship.
Paolucci has had success at Grayhawk before, too, shooting a career-low 64 at last year’s Thunderbird, which helped him to a tie for 12th.
“I’ve had a couple close calls,” he said. “It just felt good to finally come through and win one.”
Gavin Hall and Patrick Cantlay tied for third at 8-under 208, and Franco Castro and Justin Thomas were another shot back. The biggest final-round move belonged to Grayson Murray. Fresh off making the cut at the Nationwide Tour’s Rex Hospital Open, Murray fired an 8-under 64 Monday to climb 21 spots up the leaderboard and into seventh place. The round, which included nine birdies and a bogey, tied the Grayhawk course record.
Jordan Spieth, the 16-year-old who wowed crowds at last week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship with his top-20 finish, finished at 3-under 213, part of a three-way tie for third.
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Yueer Cindy Feng has been here before. The defending champion didn’t just manage another win at the Thunderbird International Junior Monday, she did so courtesy of a playoff – just like last year.
Feng started the final round in a tie for fourth after opening the tournament with two unremarkable rounds, but birdied four of her first seven holes on her way to the top of the learderboard. Feng’s single bogey came at the par-3 eighth, before three more birdies put her in the lead.
Feng would have won the title outright if not for a double bogey at the 18th that dropped her to 3-under 218. She hung her drive right at the par-5 finishing hole before taking two unplayables and sinking a 7-footer for the double. Despite a tournament-best 4-under 68, the finishing hole dropped Feng into a playoff with Beck, who had surged into the second-round lead courtesy of a 3-under 69.
“I never thought a double was this important,” she said.
Starting at No. 10, Feng and Beck went head-to-head for four holes, each making par until Beck posted a bogey at the 13th to Feng's par. When Feng won the title in 2009, it was after beating Sarah Brown with a birdie on the second playoff hole. This time she had to last a little longer.
“Today the putting worked really well and I was sticking it close, so that helped the birdie chances,” she said.
A title defense at the Thunderbird adds up to Feng’s third AJGA invitational title. She has six other AJGA wins, and is No. 12 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings.
“It’s very exciting, especially to come here after winning at the same course last year, and last Thunderbird was my first invitational win,” she said. “... I hope to keep it going.”
The afternoon also left Beck in familiar territory, as she also knows what it’s like to grind for an AJGA invitational title. Beck, who will play for Duke in the fall, entered the final round of the Annika Invitational Feb. 15 tied with top-ranked Victoria Tanco, but lost by three shots.
Rachel Morris, who held a share of the second-round lead, finished third at 2-under 214. Stephanie Meadow was fourth at 1-under 215, while top-ranked Victoria Tanco rounded out the top five.