HARTFORD, Conn. — For the second time in three years, Rose Zhang will enter the final round of the Girls Junior PGA Championship sporting the lead.
Zhang carded her “worst” score to par in her Girls Junior PGA career, a 2-under 68, but preserved her advantage over the field at Keney Park Golf Course.
“I felt like it wasn’t my best day out there, but conditions were a little different from the first two days,” said Zhang, a product of Irvine, Calif. “I kept patient on the course. It was very hard to make birdies, but I tried not to get down on myself.”
Zhang, who has committed to play at Stanford after she graduates in 2021, parred her first nine holes before hitting the gas once she made the turn. Birdies at 10, 12 and 14 were enough to overcome a bogey on No. 11. Despite not having her best, Zhang (67-63-68-198) proved, once again, she’s as elite as they come.
“It was a very neutral round on the front nine,” said the 16-year-old Zhang. “I pulled a couple of my drives on holes 10 and 11 but hit a long (30-foot) birdie on 10. There were swirling winds on a lot of the holes. The par 3s were challenging – deciding which clubs to hit was tough. Overall, executing shots was different in the wind.”
Yuka Saso of the Philippines trails Zhang by one stroke. Saso (65-68-66-199) is one of four players, along with Zhang, Jensen Castle (67-68-66-201) and Rachel Heck (68-67-69-204), with three under-par rounds thus far in the Championship. She rebounded from a double-bogey on No. 11 with birdies on five of her final seven holes and totaled seven birdies for the round.
“The first nine was really stable,” said Saso. “I was upset after my double (on 11), but I still had more holes. I believed in myself that I could keep playing well. Good thing my putter started to work.”
Castle of West Columbia, S.C., is alone in third place, three strokes behind Zhang. Melanie Green (70-66-66-202) and Megha Ganne (72-62-69-203) round out the top five. Heck and Phoebe Brinker (65-66-73-204) are tied for sixth.
The charge of the day belonged to Alexa Pano, who fired the lowest round on Thursday with a 63, matching a personal best that she established in the 2018 Evian Championship Juniors Cup. The 14-year-old from Lake Worth, Fla., climbed 32 spots up the leaderboard after converting eight birdies to just one bogey, which came after she failed to get up and down on her final hole. She’s currently in a tie for eighth place with Sara Im, seven strokes back.
“The whole day, I finally got the putts to start dropping,” said Pano, who posted consecutive 71s in her first two rounds. “I had been sticking it all week but couldn’t get anything to fall. I made nearly everything, except for one putt today (on No. 18).”
Zhang is seeking to become the eighth multi-time Girls Junior PGA Champion. She would join: Heather Farr (1980, '82); Vicki Goetze ('87, '89, '90); Beth Bauer ('94, '97); Aree Song ('99, 2000); Inbee Park ('01, '02); Lexi Thompson ('07, '09); and Ariya Jutanugarn ('11, '12).
If Zhang finishes first or second, she would be the second to finish top two in three straight years, joining Farr, who accomplished the feat from 1980-1982 (1-2-1).
“It’s very challenging to win twice, especially for a single event because every year is different,” said Zhang. “To be honest, I’m not thinking about it. I’ve seen the two-time winners like Ariya and Lexi. Their games have excelled on the LPGA Tour. I think I’m on the right path.”