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The swing was changing, and the confidence – typically so prevalent – was waning.
At the start of the year, Alexa Pano, 16, was tinkering with the swing that has already gained her national recognition on the junior golf circuit. But the early results weren’t what she wanted, and the self-belief she so prominently displayed as a 7-year-old in the Netflix documentary “The Short Game” was wavering.
That’s changed as the swing is now taking hold, a fact that was undeniable during the first round of the 45th Girls Junior PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday. Pano torched the renowned course for a 7-under 66 – the course is playing at par 73 this week – and the early lead.
“I definitely struggled at the beginning of the year,” said Pano, from Lake Worth, Florida. “I went through some swing changes and lost a lot of confidence in myself.
But the more that I worked on it and the more that I competed, I gained that confidence back. The past few weeks I kind of felt [the swing] starting to come around, so I felt pretty good coming into this week.”
Pano, currently No. 11 in the AJGA Rolex Rankings and No. 3 in the Class of 2022, implemented a conservative game plan off the tee – leave the headcover on the driver (for the most part) and find the fairway with shorter clubs. It worked to near perfection as she signed for eight birdies and just one bogey, finishing 4 under on Valhalla’s five Par 5s.
“I think the par 5s out here are pretty challenging, so I think the big deal is hitting fairways off the tee,” Pano said. “I have struggled to birdie par 5s in past events this year, so it’s been a big deal for me to do this.
“I don’t hit many drivers out here. I hit a lot of hybrids, 5-woods, 3-woods, just so I can put myself in position to really go after the pins. While these par 5s are shorter, if you miss the fairway, it can be brutal and turn into a bogey real fast.”
Isabella McCauly, who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open in June, is two shots back at 5 under, dropping in six birdies. An Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota native, McCauley is committed to the University of Minnesota.
Jaclyn LaHa, of Pleasanton, California, got hot early with three consecutive birdies on holes 4-6, but a double bogey on the par-5 seventh set her back a bit. She recovered beautifully, though, with consecutive birdies on the next three holes en route to her own 5-under 68, tied with McCauly at T-2.
Anna Davis of Spring Valley, California, birdied eight holes finishing with a 4-under 69. She birdied Nos. 2, 4, 7 and 9 before adding another four birdies on the back nine to finish T-4. Tied at that spot is another Californian, Catherine Rao of Camarillo, who made consecutive birdies on Nos. 4-6.
Grace Summerhays, the daughter of Boyd Summerhays, PGA Tour player Tony Finau’s coach, finished 3 under. Summerhays, from Scottsdale, Arizona, and No. 28 in the AJGA Rolex Rankings, is part of a pack that includes Ava Merrill (Johns Creek, Georgia) and Julia Misemer (Overland Park, Kansas) at T-6.
Megha Ganne of Holmdel, New Jersey, busted into the national spotlight when she earned a spot in the final group at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. Her start at Valhalla wasn’t quite as roaring, but she still managed a 2-under 71 despite a couple of bogeys on the par 5s, her only blemishes of the round. Ganne is currently No. 2 in the AJGA Rolex Rankings.
“I didn’t make any birdies on the par 5s, so hopefully I’m saving them for later rounds,” Ganne said, laughing but not joking. “The par 5s are enticing to go for in two. You get caught up in that, and I walked away with two sixes when par should be the most you make. It’s definitely frustrating, because it feels like you lost more than one stroke to the field there. But I’ll be more careful going forward.”
Five other players - Alexa Saldana (Mexico); Zoe Antoinette Campos (Valencia, California); Kate Song (Alpharetta, Georgia), a Mercer University commit; and Macie Brown (Mount Washington, Kentucky) - also finished -2 and tied for ninth.
Madison Hewlett, a Florida State commit from Oldsmar, Florida, who is ranked ninth in the AJGA Rolex Rankings, withdrew due to injury. Savannah Howell of Calvert City, Kentucky replaced her in the field.
Seven Kentucky natives are competing this week.
Macie Brown, Mount Washington - T-9 - 2-under-par 71
Trinity Beth, Calvert City - T-39 - 2-over 75
Casey Powell, Lexington - T-77 - 5-over 78
Abigail Sutherland, Glenview - T-116 - 9-over 82
Savannah Howell, Calvert City - T-124 - 10-over 83
Elizabeth Eberle, Richmond - T-134 - 13-over 86
Claira Beth Ramsey, Richmond - 141 - 16-over 89
The 45th Girls Junior PGA Championship continues Tuesday at 8 a.m., with the top 70 and ties making the cut following play.