LEXINGTON, Ky. - One year after finishing alone in second place in the 2017 Girls Junior PGA Championship, Yealimi Noh owns the solo 36-hole lead. The 43rd edition of the Championship is being contested at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Kentucky.
A resident of Concord, California, Noh executed flawlessly through the first two rounds, playing bogey-free and capitalizing with 13 birdies. She bettered her first-round 66 with a 7-under 65 on Tuesday and leads Greenwood, Indiana’s Erica Shepherd (65-67-132) by one. Noh’s two-round total of 131 ties Mariel Galdiano (2016) for the Championship’s lowest 36-hole score.
“Surprisingly, I still left a couple putts out there,” said Noh. “I’m hitting my irons pretty well this week, so even if I miss the green it’s only on the fringe or first cut. I’m hitting a lot of greens.”
Last year, Noh co-led after 36 holes, but failed to keep up with the eventual champion, Rose Zhang. One key progression in her game may prove to be the difference this year.
“I’ve gained probably 20 yards since last summer,” said Noh, who has birdied seven of the eight par 5s through two rounds. “Hopefully I can take advantage of the par 5s the rest of the week.”
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Noh will play in the third round final grouping – a familiar spot for her. She was the last off in both the third and final rounds in 2017 en route to her runner-up finish. Noh expects to draw upon last year’s experience to maintain a steady mindset.
“I said the same thing last year – I’m not thinking about anyone else’s score,” said Noh. “When I focus too much on the leader board, every shot becomes bigger and I think differently.”
Leading the pack chasing Noh is Shepherd, who, for the second straight day, kept the driver in her bag – for the most part.
“I used it on the first and last tees, and neither were good,” said Shepherd. “It's almost like someone’s trying to tell me to [remove] the driver this week.”
Shepherd began her second round 4-under through 10 holes, but encountered trouble on her back nine. As Shepherd approached her tee shot on the par-3 12th, the wind picked up. Rather than backing off, she overturned a 7-iron into the water and walked off the green with a double-bogey.
She rebounded in a significant way with birdies on three of her final four holes to position herself alone in second place, and the chance to play in the final group with Noh and Alexa Melton.
“I’ll be with girls I’ve played with my entire life, so it won’t be uncomfortable at all,” said Shepherd. “Just keep hitting greens and making putts like I have been.”
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Melton, who set the lowest 18-hole score in Championship history with a first-round 63, struggled early on Tuesday with bogeys at the 2nd and 3rd holes. Three straight birdies on holes 6 through 8 calmed the nerves of the 17-year-old from Covina, Calif. She followed Monday’s performance with a 2-under 70 (133) and trails Noh by two strokes.
“The putts just weren’t dropping today,” said Melton. “I can’t play too aggressive. I’m an aggressive player so I tend to go for a lot of pins. I need to know when to go for it and when to play it safe.”
Another record fell on Tuesday, this time by Lake Worth, Florida, resident, Alexa Pano. The 13-year-old posted the lowest second-round card in Championship history: an 8-under-par 64, which is also a personal best for Pano in a competition round. Her name and score will replace the 65 shot by Zhang (2017) and Vicki Goetze (1990).
Pano’s practice time at Kearney Hill was considerably less than most players in the field. Last week, Pano competed in the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic in Oneida, Wisconsin, where she missed the cut after posting 75-72.
“I didn’t get to play a full practice round, so I definitely got to know the front better today,” said Pano. “My putting was just a lot better. I had eight one-putts on the front nine. I gave myself really good chances for birdies.”
Pano heads into the final 36 holes in fourth place (70-64-134). 2016 champion Lucy Li (66-69-135) and Zhang (68-67-135) are tied for fifth.
71 players advanced to the third round, as the 144-player field was cut to the low 70 and ties following the second round.