LEXINGTON, Ky. - Yealimi Noh stepped onto the first tee box Wednesday morning with a one-stroke lead. Thirty minutes and three consecutive birdies later, she stretched her lead to four strokes. And by the time Noh reached the turn, her advantage extended to six.
A resident of Concord, California, Noh posted a personal-best, 8-under 64 and has a commanding lead in the 43rd Girls Junior PGA Championship at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Kentucky.
In last year’s Championship, Noh trailed the eventual champion, Rose Zhang, by four strokes heading into the final round. A role reversal places Noh in charge this year by seven strokes over Zhang and Alexa Melton.
At 21-under-par, Noh shattered the Championship record for the lowest total through 54 holes (66-65-64-195), replacing last year’s champion in the record book (Zhang: 200). The 16-year-old also set the record for lowest third-round score in the Championship by two shots, overtaking Zhang (2017), Ariya Jutanugarn (2011), Lexi Thompson (2007) and four others who carded 66s.
“It felt really good to get started with three straight birdies,” said Noh. “It gave me a lot of confidence throughout the round. My putting has been great this week. I got a new putter a couple weeks ago, and this is the first national tournament I’ve used it in. I’m really glad it’s working well.”
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Noh has feasted on Kearney Hill’s par 5s. Through three rounds, she has converted 11 birdies with just one par, which occurred during the first round on the 7th hole.
“The par 5s have been really important because I try to go for eagle each time, but I’ll take the birdie,” said Noh, who has 21 birdies and zero bogeys this week. “I’ve been focusing really well, and I’m still having fun on the course. I played with both my friends today (Melton and Erica Shepherd), so it was fun out there.”
Thursday’s final round will have more than a national championship on the line: the winner and the runner-up, provided they are U.S. citizens and in the class of 2019 or younger, will earn spots onto the 2018 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team. The 11th Junior Ryder Cup will be staged September 24-25 at Disneyland Paris.
Zhang jockeyed for positioning the entire round with several competitors. An eagle at the par-5 14th propelled Zhang up the leader board and into her current spot: tied for second place with Melton.
“Overall, I played pretty solid today,” said Zhang, who resides in Irvine, Calif. “[Yealimi] is such a great player and she’s improved a lot in the past year. I doubt she’s going to make any huge mistakes tomorrow because this course suits her so well.”
Despite four bogeys on her third-round card, Melton managed to pick herself up and post seven birdies on Wednesday, including three over her final five holes. The Covina, Calif. resident has combined to go 8-under at Kearney Hill’s five finishing holes. Melton will play with Noh and Zhang in the final group on Thursday.
Joining Zhang and Melton in the chase from behind are five players at 204: Lucy Li (66-69-69); Annabelle Pancake (71-68-65); Alexa Pano (70-64-70); Yuka Saso (67-69-68); and Shepherd (65-67-72).
“I’ve learned through playing in tournaments to never let my guard down,” said Noh. “I won’t focus on other scores as I always say, and just focus on my own game tomorrow.”