No. 2 Gianna Clemente & No. 7 Miles Russell Win 47th Junior PGA Championships
By Alan Cox
Miles Russell & Gianna Clemente (Photo by Ryan Lochhead/PGA of America)
Out of a field that started with 312 of the top juniors in the country, two of the youngest competitors won the 47th Junior PGA Championships at Hot Springs Country Club. Fifteen-year-old Gianna Clemente won the Girls Division by three strokes after a hard fought final round while 14-year-old Miles Russell cruised to a seven-shot victory among the Boys.
Clemente, who led after round one and never left the top five all week, finished 9-under 275 after shooting 3-under 68 in the final round to take home the Patty Berg Trophy.
“It’s a huge win for me,” said Clemente. “Definitely kind of a rollercoaster day starting off with a double. Not an ideal start. But I just grinded it out all day and tried to make as many birdies as possible. It’s really, really special for sure.”
Clemente entered the day two strokes off the lead and double-bogeyed her opening hole Friday, but the No. 2-ranked junior on the Rolex AJGA Rankings knew there was “a lot of time to make birdies.” The Estero, Florida native’s focus paid off as she carded five birdies the rest of the way, including back-to-back on holes 16 and 17 to secure the win.
“I knew it was just the first hole,” said Clemente. “There were 17 holes left. Just kind of tried to focus on the front on getting it back to even, which I did pretty quickly. I knew I could go super low on the back. Just getting it back to even and finally making a birdie to get it to red numbers was really important.”
Russell rode the momentum of his two-day lead, turning in a final round 4-under 67 to finish with a score of 18-under 266 to add his name to the Jack Nicklaus Trophy. It was his second time in the winner’s circle at a national PGA event, having won the National Car Rental PGA Jr. League Championship as part of Team North Carolina in 2022.
“It’s what you practice for all year,” said Russell, the No. 7-ranked junior. “[The Junior PGA Championship] is a great tournament and I’m proud to be the winner of it. I hit my irons and wedges pretty darn good and made putts when I needed to.”
The Jacksonville, Florida, native carded four birdies to increase his lead and closed out the day with his third eagle of the championship. It was his second on the 18th hole at the Arlington Course following an eagle to close out day one.
“It was totally different [today],” said Russell. “The first day was driver, wood to 15-20 feet and I made the putt. Today, it was a bad drive right with a 5-iron that somehow got around the bunker. I had a buried lie and just kind of chopped at it. It ran on up to the green and hit the flag and went in.”
Three players tied for second in the Girls Division at 6-under 278: No. 4-ranked junior Yana Wilson from Henderson, Nevada (2-under 69); Zixin Ni from Wuhan, China (1-under 70); and Kylie Chong from Torrance, California (5-under 66). Kylee Choi from Murrieta, California, who led the Girls following the second and third rounds, finished in fifth place at 3-under 281.
Chong’s bogey-free 5-under 66 was the low-round of the day across both divisions and continued the 17-year-old’s steady climb up the leaderboard after a tough opening day.
“I honestly don’t believe it,” said Chong. “I started off the tournament in 88th place because I shot 4-over the first day. Then the second day, I came back and shot 3-under and moved up 70 places. I kept going up the leaderboard and so I’m really happy I didn’t give up.”
No. 9-ranked junior Billy Davis from Spring Valley, California (3-under 68) and Jackson Byrd from Saint Simons Island, Georgia (4-under 67) tied for second among the Boys at 11-under 273. Kihei Akina from Alpine, Utah was fourth at 9-under 275 ahead of three players tied for fifth at 8-under 276: Will Hartman (Marvin, North Carolina), No. 3-ranked Jay Leng (San Diego, California); and No. 14 Wheaton Ennis (Eagle, Idaho).
Four Spots on 2023 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team Secured
In addition to winning the Junior PGA Championships, Clemente and Russell secured their spots on the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team, which will travel to play in Rome September 26-28. Play will begin at Golf Nazionale before moving to Marco Simone Golf & Country Club for the final day as the juniors will get to showcase their skills on the same course that will host the Pros when the Ryder Cup begins the following day on September 29.
“I’ve been thinking about it for years,” said Clemente. “I’m pretty sure I put up a piece of paper three years ago that said Ryder Cup on it because I wanted to make the team so bad. I was probably 12 or 13 when I did that. I’ve been looking forward to it forever. It’s super important to me. It’s going to be really fun.”
“I can’t wait,” added Russell. “It was a thought a little while ago, but I had to go do something good at Junior PGA [to get there]. It’s an honor to be on that team with some of the top juniors to hang out with and play with.”
The other two spots on the U.S. Team were decided by playoffs between the eligible runners-up who were tied in the Girls and Boys divisions. Kylie Chong defeated Yana Wilson to qualify for the second spot for the Girls.
“It means everything to me,” said Chong. “It’s one of the reasons why I started golf. It’s such a good opportunity to be representing your country. It just feels so surreal right now, I can’t really believe it.”
Jackson Byrd, the son of five-time PGA Tour winner Jonathan Byrd, birdied his final hole of the championship to force the playoff against Billy Davis, which he won to earn the second spot for the Boys.
“That was a goal this year,” said Byrd. “That was my main goal coming into this summer. At my first few events I played awful and didn’t think I had a chance now with two events left: U.S. Junior and Junior PGA. U.S. Junior, you win and you get in and then at the Junior PGA, the top two [get in]. I played really good the first couple days at U.S. Junior and then lost the first round in match play. So to then come here and finish top two is really cool. It’s really awesome.”
The final U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team will be announced by the end of August and include six girls and six boys.
Hot Springs Country Club a Stellar Host
The Junior PGA Championships hold special meaning to PGA Board Member Barry Howard, the General Manager and Director of Golf at Hot Springs Country Club since 2002. He played in the event in 1979, and he was excited to welcome 312 of the top junior golfers and their families to his home state of Arkansas.
“It’s really hard to describe,” said an emotional Howard. “Just to be able to host this year is extremely special to me because of how much I love the PGA of America. I think now that it’s over, the membership has realized what it was. I’ve told them all along that they’re not going to believe how big this championship is.”
Howard was instrumental not only in bringing the championships to Hot Springs Country Club, but also with operations leading up to and during the event. He was quick to credit his membership and staff, including Head Golf Professional Philip Holley, PGA, and Assistant Professionals Brice Howard and Jordan Roper, for making it a success.
“First, obviously seeing the kids with the smiles on their faces,” Howard said. “How the golf course has stood up. How our staff and everybody stepped up and the members have stepped up with the volunteering. All that is what I’ll remember the most, just how special it was to everybody.”
A PGA Member since 1992, Howard has served Hot Springs Country Club in some capacity since 1990, first as an Assistant Golf Professional before becoming the Head Golf Professional from 1992-2002.
“Golf has given me everything I have,” said Howard, a member of the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame. “The PGA of America has meant everything to me because of what it’s done for my life.”