As the 6th PGA Jr. League Championship presented by National Car Rental returned to picturesque Grayhawk Golf Club, Team New Jersey (Hillsborough) and Team Georgia (Duluth) took early leads in their respective divisions, with Texas and New Hampshire knocking on the door.
Eight Regional Champion teams combined of boys and girls from across the country are vying for the national title. The 80 boys and girls represent All-Star Teams from a record 42,000 kids who played in PGA Jr. League during 2017.
At 2-0, New Jersey, which features two girls and eight boys, sits atop the Ryder Division standings, after defeating Team Illinois (Chicago) 8-4 in the morning session; and Team Arkansas (Little Rock) 10-2 in the afternoon match.
The power pairing of 12-year-old Katie Li, who is appearing in her second PGA Jr. League Championship with Team New Jersey, and 11-year-old Megan Meng, a 2016 U.S. Kids Golf World Champion, went birdie-birdie-birdie on the final three holes to propel New Jersey to its desert hot start.
New Jersey leads Team Texas (Houston), who went 1-0-1 on the day. After tying Team Arkansas (Little Rock) 6-6 in the morning, Texas beat Illinois (Chicago) 7-5. Texas is in a must-win situation against New Jersey on Saturday to advance to Sunday’s Championship final pairing. New Jersey needs to either win or tie to clinch a chance to play for the title.
“I’m very proud of this team,” said Team New Jersey Captain Anthony Latham, PGA. “They’re scrappers. They prepared and worked hard, but we pride ourselves on being ready for anything. The third match was pivotal, because they’d lost the first two flags. Megan and Katie’s three consecutive birdies on Hole Nos. 16, 17 and 18 got us to seven [points], which secured the win."
“We started rough, but I think as we went on, we gained more confidence,” Li added. “Once we got a birdie, it encouraged us to keep making putts.”
In the Wanamaker Division, Team Georgia flexed its muscle early on and never looked back en route to a 10.5-1.5 win over Team Ohio (Columbia Station) to take first place by 2.5 points over Team New Hampshire after the opening stanza. The Wanamaker Division had a bye in the morning round.
Veteran Ethan Gao, 12, of Alpharetta, Georgia, who was the youngest player in the Championship last year, made an impressive return to Grayhawk, as he drilled a 25-foot eagle putt on the final hole to accentuate his team’s opening day win. Gao believes last year’s experience has given him an edge this year in a number of ways.
“Coming back, it settles my nerves a little bit more, and I can putt freely,” said Gao. “The competitors on my team have become my friends now, and everyone’s turned into my friends now, and I feel that it’s great that PGA Jr. League organized this.”
“Every single one of our kids played incredibly today,” said PGA Professional and Team Georgia Captain Patrick McCrary. “We didn’t have a weak link… the camaraderie on this team has been great to watch.”
Team New Hampshire (Atkinson) pulled off quite the win against Team California (San Jose) on the back nine of the Raptor Course. New Hampshire’s third and fourth twosomes each eagled Hole No. 18, their third hole of the day, and they rode this momentum to a victory over a tough California team.
“It jump started us a little bit,” said Team New Hampshire Captain Peter Doherty, PGA. “Between families, word starting getting back to the kids in the other groups. From there on, it never seemed to stop…Today’s win boosts the confidence more than anything. I hope it gets them off to a better start tomorrow, and they can just let it ride all afternoon.”
What’s a kid to do after such a great first day?
“They’re going back to the hotel to play football in the pool,” Team Georgia Assistant Coach Greg Powers answered.