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SOUTH HADLEY, Massachusetts – Longmeadow native Annie Dai (MIAA) fondly recalls playing in her first Massachusetts Girls’ Junior Amateur Championship in the Mite Division five years ago. “My very first tournament was this tournament, and I had like four clubs in the bag,” Dai said with a chuckle.
Dai, now 15, would surmise that one of those clubs was a putter, and it was her flat stick that made the biggest difference in the first round of this year’s Girls’ Junior Amateur, which began on a hazy and humid Tuesday at The Orchards Golf Club (par-72, 5,620-yards).
After shooting 1-over through 16 holes, Dai closed out her round by making birdie putts on holes 17 and 18 to finish the first of two rounds in first place at 1-under-par 71. Renna Chang (Youth On Course) finished even-par 72 and will play in the final group Wednesday with Grace Farland (Marlborough Country Club), who shot 2-over 74.
Competitors between the ages of 14 and 18 are taking part in 18 holes of stroke play in the Championship Division (Handicaps 10.1 and lower) and the Silver Division (Handicaps 10.2 and higher) on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Those under the age of 14 are featured in the Junior-Mite Division, which includes 9-holes on each of the two days. Awards are also given for most improved score in the championship.
Starting times for the second and final round will begin at 7 a.m. Wednesday due to anticipated inclement weather.
Annie Dai is used to playing against strong competition. As a first-year student at Northfield Mt. Hermon this past year, she became the only female player to make the co-ed golf team and has emerged into a stellar player.
Dai was picking her spots throughout Tuesday’s round. On the par-5 3rd (440-yards) she decided to lay up on her second shot instead of going for the green, leaving her 50-yards from the flag. She then hit the perfect pitch and was able to knock it within 2-feet for a tap-in birdie. After making a 10-foot downhill putt for birdie on the par-4 12th (320-yards), she gave it back with a bogey. But when faced with a pair of 15-footers for birdie on the final two holes, she sank both into the center of the cup.
“That put me under par and really boosted my confidence,” said Dai, whose younger sister Connie also competed.
Dai’s best finish in the Championship Division came last year when she placed 7th overall, at 10-over for the championship. Entering the final round in the lead, she’s doing her best to approach it like she has nothing to lose.
“Tomorrow, I’m not having high expectations, I’m just excited to play with other good players,” she said. “I’m a little bit nervous for tomorrow, but I’m just going to go in and have fun.”
Renna Chang had the lead through the first nine at 2-under, as she led all players with five birdies in the first 18-hole round. Though she came in with a 2-over 38 on the back nine, after sandwiching a double-bogey on the 12th, she also had two solid birdie makes. On the 11th, she sank the uphill putt and then made a two-putt birdie on the 13th, finishing the day in position to contend for the title Wednesday.
“I hope I do better, no double-bogeys I hope,” said Chang when asked about Wednesday’s round.
Chang, is a member of Youth On Course, a nationwide program that offers youth under the age of18 the opportunity to play rounds of golf for $5 or less at participating courses nationwide. Growing up in New York, she often got to play courses such as Bethpage Black, which hosted the 2002 U.S. Open and the 2019 PGA Championship.
A regular in Junior PGA and AJGA events, Chang said she began playing golf at age 6 and said her scores have made her biggest improvement this page year. Though she struggled to hit a solid 3-wood in the damp conditions, she made up for it with solid putting.
Grace Farland got off to a strong start Tuesday as she made a birdie on the second and then an eagle on the third to go 1-under 35 on the front nine.
Farland, who will attend the University of Hartford in the fall, is looking for her first top-10 finish in the event. She holds a one-stroke lead over sisters Morgan Smith and Molly Smith, of Vesper Country Club, who stand at 3-over 75 one week after competing in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur. The Smiths will play alongside Lucy McCabe (Marlborough Country Club), who also shot 75 in the opening round.
The Silver Division competitors all got to play in the same group Tuesday, and were led by Lindsay Hong (Hopkinton Country Club). Hong, a member of the Hopkinton High School co-ed golf team, set the pace with a 90 and held her spot in first with three straight pars to close out her round.
Her playing partners are too far behind, though, as Rosie Leonard (Sharon Country Club) and Olivia Cutting (The Haven Country Club) shot a 94 and 96, respectively.
This year, the Junior-Mite Division came together to feature all the players under the age of 14, as they compete in 9-holes each day.
Abby Zhu (Indian Ridge Country Club) made birdie on the first three holes of the 2,020-yard layout to finish 1-under-par 35. She also made birdie on the final hole of the round.
Despite starting her day with a double bogey, Kaitlyn Doe (MIAA) capped off her round with an eagle on the 365-yard par-5 to move into a tie with Zhu. Kylie Heffernan (Sterling National Country Club), who won the Junior-Junior Division last year, finished her round 1-over 37.
Though Molly Smith, and her sister Morgan, didn’t make the cut at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur last week, Molly made up for it on her return trip back home.
The Smiths were originally going to try to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur championship at Boston Golf Club last Monday but were playing in the first round of the U.S. Girls’ Junior that day. Instead, they got into the qualifier at Knickerbocker Country Club, in Tenafly, New Jersey, and Molly emerged with one of four qualifying spots for the Championship Proper, which begins August 2 in Rye, New York.
The change of venue turned out to be a positive as Molly shot 1-under-par to qualify for the nation’s top women’s amateur event. Molly also said she “lucked out” with the venue because Knickbocker fit her eye well, especially playing at 6,350 yards.
“It had a lot of similarities to Vesper (her home club),” Smith said. “It’s pretty open, and that’s sort of the courses I excel on are the long challenging courses in the length aspects, not necessarily like courses with quirky holes.”
The qualifier made for some drama, though. After a bogey on the 10th, she was able to swing the momentum with a clutch up-and-down on the 11th. Sitting right around that cutline at 2-over through 14 holes, Smith made it a memorable finish by making birdie on three of the final four holes. After wedging in to set up birdies on the 15th and 16th, she finished with a birdie after hitting the green in two, and she then two-putted to clinch her spot as the first Massachusetts native to qualify for the championship this year.
“The US Junior didn’t go exactly how I wanted to, so now I have another chance in a USGA event to redeem myself,” Molly said. “I’m really excited for that because it’s not just junior players, it’s everybody.”
The Orchards is regularly ranked as one of the best campus courses in the nation. Located on the grounds of Mt. Holyoke College, an elite women’s college, the course’s history fits the location as its hosted championship competition in the women’s game.
The club hosted the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur in 1987, and the 2002 NCAA Women’s Division III Championship. But The Orchards moved to the grand stage in 2004 when it became just the third club in Massachusetts to host the U.S. Women’s Open (joining Salem Country Club and Worcester Country Club).
As part of the club’s centennial celebration next year, it will host the 119th Massachusetts Women’s Amateur Championship, the longest-running amateur golf event in the state’s history.
“We have a strong membership, but this course has a strong women’s history so we try to cater to those events as well, and it’s special to have this years’ Girls Junior Amateur,” said Chris Tallman, General Manager of The Orchards.
The Orchards’ origin starts with Joseph A. Skinner, a Mount Holyoke trustee, whose daughter, Elisabeth Skinner developed a passion for golf. So, Mr. Skinner decided to build her a golf course and spared no expense by hiring legendary architect Donald Ross to build the layout. Ross completed the first nine in 1922 and added the remaining nine holes in 1927. The club was then deeded over to the college in the 1940s.
The Ross elements still live on today, including deep bunkering with grass faces and winding fairways through trees, many of which have been cleared in the past year for safety reasons and to open up the golf course. Archival photos show the course mostly treeless in its early days, with many of them planted about 80 years ago.
Back in April, golf course superintendent David Parson described the progress of the tree clearing project, which so far has taken out nearly 8,000 trees, mostly dying red pines, to date.