Wongluekiet tops off her summer with U.S. Girls' Junior crown

13-year-old becomes youngest winner in USGA history

August 08, 1999|By John W. Stewart | John W. Stewart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the most difficult things about watching Nancy Abiecunas and Aree Wongluekiet play golf was realizing they were 16 and 13, respectively.

The two put on a near-flawless performance before Wongluekiet emerged with a 2-up victory in the final of the 51st U.S. Girls' Junior championship at the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club yesterday.

With the triumph, Wongluekiet, from Bradenton, Fla., became the youngest champion in U.S. Golf Association history at 13 years, three months, seven days. Previously, Kay Cornelius (1981) at 14 years, seven months, 10 days, held the record.

Wongluekiet, backed by five American Junior Golf Association wins since turning 13 on May 1, moved in front with a conceded birdie at the 12th, and put an exclamation point on her title by dropping a seven-foot putt for a winning birdie on the 18th green.

"This is the highlight of my summer," said the champion, an eighth grader. "I wanted to do well. I didn't think I'd do this well."

The match turned on the 11th and 12th holes. Given Abiecunas' play of the 11th in five previous matches, it was not surprising. She had made one par and four bogeys at the 391-yard par-4 test.

Abiecunas, 1-up after the two halved No. 10 with birdies, drove into the right rough at 11, put a second shot into the back collar, chipped down, and missed a four-foot putt for par.

She never even got to the green at the 12th, driving into the left trees, pitching out, and putting her third shot into the water fronting the green.

One-down going to 13, it marked the first time Abiecunas, a high school senior from Fort Collins, Colo., had been behind in a stretch of 63 holes. At that point, who could blame her for thinking she would come back to win.

"Even then, I still thought I had a chance to win," said Abiecunas, bigger (a full six inches taller) and stronger than her diminutive opponent. Wongluekiet, 5 feet 3 and not more than 100 pounds, had been showing all week there were not many mistakes in her game. For the last six holes, she put it all on display for the large and appreciative gallery.

Both players had shown they could play with a lead, as Wongluekiet was behind for only three holes, and Abiecunas, four, in their first five matches.

When crunch time came, however, it was the younger player who stepped up. Wongluekiet was 4-under par for the last 11 holes, with four birdies, no bogeys.

Earlier, Abiecunas had gone 4-under par with an eagle-3 at the 497-yard sixth, but a measure of Wongluekiet's fortitude was the fact she was only 1-down.

The expressionless leader -- one could not tell by looking whether she was 3-up or 3-down -- played like a champion down the stretch. She protected a 1-up margin with some clutch putts for pars after her foe had been unable to get birdie putts to drop.

This was particularly true at the 17th, where Abiecunas' nine-foot putt for birdie to square the match went in the hole and spun out. Wongluekiet surveyed her four-footer and, as she had done on practically every putt inside of 10 feet all week, rapped it into the center of the cup.

Both hit the green at the 137-yard 18th. Abiecunas' 15-foot putt, a last-ditch bid to stay alive, slid by the cup. She took a deep breath and her shoulders slumped. Wongluekiet followed with her final putt.

"I had to play a little more aggressively and get a break," the champion said of being two-down after seven holes. "I was trying to get some momentum, because she was playing very well."

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