A 12-Year-Old Pearl Delivers First-Round Gem
By David Shefter, USGA
Carmel, Ind. – Outside of the customary “it’s good” or “nice shot” the banter between opponents Pearl Jin and Ashley Tait was non-existent.
Then again, what does a 20-year-old college junior talk about with a 12-year-old seventh-grader?
The next fraternity party? Guys? The upcoming presidential election?
Of course, friendly chatter won’t necessarily get your name inscribed on the Robert Cox Cup. And it won’t help you hit golf shots, either.
Jin, the youngest competitor in this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur field, did all the talking Wednesday with her golf clubs, specifically her putter. Building a 5-up lead through 10 holes, thanks to five birdies (one conceded), Jin hung on for a 2-and-1 victory over Tait at Crooked Stick Golf Club.
What’s remarkable is Jin only took up golf 3½ years ago after earning her black belt in taekwondo. Neither of her Chinese Taipei-born parents play the game and, although her mom, Yolanda, is serving has her caddie this week, she “basically just washes the ball.”
But my how far this San Gabriel, Calif., resident has come since first picking up a club at the age of 8. Since 2004, she has won 51 tournaments.
Last month, she won the 11-12 girls’ division of the Callaway Junior World Championship at Lake San Marcos Country Club by seven strokes, shooting a course-record 66 in round two of the 54-hole competition. Her golf bag has tags displaying her three holes-in-one she, including a 252-yarder at Scholl Canyon when she was 10.
Against Tait, she simply was finding the hole with her putter. She made a 10-footer for birdie at the first hole and a 20-foot birdie at the second. A winning par at the third gave Jin a 3-up lead before Tait could even blink. Both players converted long birdie putts at seven before Jin was conceded a birdie at the par-4 eighth after Tait found the water with her tee shot. She dropped a 12-foot birdie at the par-5 ninth for a 5-up lead at the turn.
Never mind that Jin is competing in her first match-play competition and first USGA championship.
“She played lights out on that front nine,” said Tait, a Littleton, Colo., native who plays for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “I was getting slaughtered out there.”
But then Jin started showing signs of her inexperience. A poor approach from the fairway at the par-5 11th led to a bogey and a lost hole. Then her approach to the par-4 12th sailed way left into some high fescue. That led to a double bogey and another lost hole. At No. 14, Jin’s tee shot hit some trees and caromed out of bounds, which led to another double bogey and lost hole. Now her lead was down to two. Tait converted her lone birdie of the match at the par-5 15th, rolling in a 4-footer after Jin left her 10-footer on the lip.
All of a sudden, it appeared Tait might pull off an incredible comeback. Facing a 9-foot birdie putt at 16, Tait didn’t play enough break. One hole later, she missed a 5-foot par putt that would have extended the match to 18.
“It feels really good,” said Jin, who hit 12 of 17 greens. “I enjoyed it.
“Of course, I’m nervous because it is a very big event, but I just try to keep myself calm and just play my game.”
Jin might be a neophyte on the grand stage of amateur golf, but she looks quite comfortable. In Tuesday’s second round of stroke play, she shot a 2-under-par 70. And outside of a few loose shots on the second nine Wednesday, Jin performed like someone twice her age.
Then again, Tait was eight years older and had plenty of experience in match play. But she was defenseless against Jin’s shot-making. Eight years ago, Tait was competing in small Colorado junior events and even broke par over nine holes. Yet she wasn’t fighting for a spot in the round of 32 at the Women’s Amateur.
“It’s good for junior golfers out there, but it’s unfathomable for us older girls,” said Tait. “The funny thing is I played nine holes with her in a practice round. She was very solid. [But] I didn’t expect her to make five birdies on the front nine. That was unbelievable.”
Now Jin gets to play another 12-year-old in Alexis Thompson of Coral Springs, Fla., in the second round Thursday morning. It will be a historic showdown as it’s the youngest match-up between opponents since the championship began in 1895.
Thompson has a lot of affection for cats, while Jin admits to making clothes for her dog.
Perhaps the two seventh-graders will have plenty to talk about.
David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.