With 16 Junior Tour of Northern California players in the field of 81 juniors at the 2018 PURE Insurance Championship, the odds were pretty good that more than one player from one of the local area’s First Tee chapters would feature among the top finishers in the event.
As Sunday’s final round wound up, two JTNC players were among three who were tied for the lead. JTNC player Matthew Sutherland of Carmichael and La Quinta’s Caroline Wales were already in the clubhouse at 16-under 199 while Roseville’s Yena Jang, from The First Tee of Greater Sacramento, had nine holes left to play—and an opportunity to take the lead.
The 16-year-old high school senior wants to study marine biology in college, but she obviously wasn’t distracted by the marine life and coastal views as she posted two rounds of 68 at Pebble Beach (net best ball with her pro, Duffy Waldorf) Friday and Sunday, and a 63 at Poppy Hills on Saturday.
A key moment in her final round was her birdie on #8, the notorious par-4 that features a second shot over a cliff above the crashing Pacific surf. Her pro partner, Duffy Waldorf, hit a low, hard-running tee shot that ran a little too far, and ended up going over the cliff.
Yena’s tee shot landed in perfect position in the fairway, and she stiffed her approach shot hole-high, about 20 feet left of the center flag.
“I know that when he was in trouble I was just trying to save par, because I didn’t want to go over on my round. They helped me read my line and then it just went in. It was really big. It was cool.”
Coming down the stretch, Jang knew that she was tied with Sutherland and Wales, and she knew what she had to do to pull out the win. Just one birdie or better, in the final stretch (and no bogeys, of course) would have pulled out the win for her. It didn’t happen, but the Roseville youngster was very sanguine about the result:
“I knew, and I tried really hard to make birdie (on 18), but I hit it past, but it’s OK. And then my pro (Duffy Waldorf) wasn’t having the best putting day, either. He had a lot of birdie chances but they weren’t going in. I had a couple of birdie putts that lipped out, I had a sand shot that went into the hole and went back out. Things like that.”
The junior competition came down to a three-way tie, based on final score, and was decided by a scorecard playoff, backwards from 18; that is, the three players’ scores on the 18th hole were compared, and the player with the best cumulative score on the hole would win; if their scores on the hole were identical, their scores on 17 would be evaluated, and so on.
Matthew Sutherland’s net 2-under on 18 put him in first place. Wales and Jang’s finishes came down to their play on the 16th hole over three days, with Wales taking second on the strength of a net 3-under to Jang’s par.
Sutherland, who also plays for the First Tee of Greater Sacramento, knew what the picture was as he and his pro partner, and uncle, Kevin Sutherland, were closing out their round.
“I’ve got to be honest, me and Kevin were talking, we didn’t make birdie on the par-5 fourteenth, and we were thinking we’re going to need to make some birdies coming down the stretch. At that point I think we were tied or one back of the lead. Kevin ended up birdying 15. We made a couple of good pars on 16 and 17, and ended up (parring 18). We put up a low number in the morning and it just held up.”
“The bottom line is, it’s not about who wins out here, it’s about the experience that all these kids and myself have had, and I think that’s probably the most important part about all this.”
Playing the event was a special experience for Sutherland, and especially sharing it with his uncle Kevin, a Sacramento native and Fresno State grad who has played in the PGA Tour and Champions Tour since 1992.
“He was a great partner, he stayed focused, he kept me in line. It’s been one of the best weeks of my life, for sure, whether or not I’m taking home a trophy.”