ASHLAND Soft-spoken Yuze Zhang, a 6-foot-2 golfer with power, was something of the quiet giant of the 2019 Bluegrass Junior.

There was no holding back, however, when he sank an 18-foot putt from the front fringe on the final hole Friday to claim his first American Junior Golf Association title.

“Yes!” exclaimed the 16-year-old with a fist pump after the ball disappeared into the cup at Bellefonte Country Club.

Zhang has been training in Windermere, Florida, for three years after coming over from China. He and Jolo Timothy Magcalayo of the Philippines went to par-4 No. 18 tied.

Both drives missed the fairway — Zhang to the right and Magcalayo down the left side. Zhang followed with a nice line drive to the fringe, while Magcalayo’s second shot landed short of the green and his chip rolled several feet past the hole.

That set the stage for Zhang’s winner.

“I had a lot of pressure,” he said. “If I miss, maybe we have a playoff. I didn’t really know if it was going in. Getting my first AJGA win, it’s very exciting.”

Magcalayo, also age 16, two-putted for a bogey — his fourth in the final seven holes. It marked a sharp reversal. He started the day one shot off the lead and surged to a three-shot advantage after birdies on Nos. 7 and 9, while Zhang made two bogeys during the same stretch.

Both players birdied 10 and 11, with Magcalayo’s score diving to 8-under. But the tide quickly turned as he bogeyed three of the next four holes.

Zhang took advantage, shooting 32 on the back nine for the second straight day to grab the victory in favorable conditions. His 6-under total of 204 was built on three rounds below par.

“We only met today,” Magcalayo said of his counterpart. “He’s good.”

Zhang, No. 216 in the Rolex AJGA Rankings, made a 30-footer for par on No. 12. He stayed in the groove with a birdie on the next hole as the two talented players battled down the stretch.

“We had fun,” Zhang said. “He’s a friendly guy and a good golfer.”

Nick Rakes (Evington, Virginia) also played in the lead group and finished third at 210. Gabe Hunter (Alcoa, Tennessee) was next with a 212 total.

The 36th Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior at Bellefonte — presented by BrickStreet Insurance — had plenty of international flavor. Eighteen players from outside the U.S. made the cut after Thursday’s second round.

Ontario’s Emily Zhu also savored her first AJGA win. The steady 15-year-old player earned it by putting together three consecutive rounds of par-70.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Zhu said. “It means a lot to me. I got really close once before but lost it, so I’m very happy to have this win.”

A member of Canada’s national junior team, Zhu became the fourth Bluegrass Junior girls champion in six years to post a score of 210. She finished three shots ahead of Pinehurst’s Nicole Adam, who shot 69 in the final round.  

“I think overall I played pretty well,” Zhu said. “It’s a really nice course that challenges you to be accurate.”

Boyd County High School standout Olivia Hensley tied for 14th at 224 in her first appearance in the tournament. The girls division began with 48 players.

Hensley shot 75 in the final round, highlighted by two birdies.

“I did better than yesterday,” Hensley said. “I thought today was a more steady round, more like me. Yesterday I would definitely go back and play better on the back side.”

Her first two days resembled a rollercoaster ride. On Wednesday, Hensley shot 1-under 69 on lights-out putting to become the first local Kentucky girl to lead the tournament at the end of a round. Only two other girls posted a sub-70 score this week.

Hensley couldn’t find her rhythm Thursday and had to settle for an 80, but responded with a better showing Friday.

“It’s tough,” she said of the BCC layout. “It doesn’t seem like a long course, but it’s difficult because of the trees and how it’s hilly. You get uphill and downhill lies. There were tough pin placements today.”          

Handing out honors

Cameron Weis Sportsmanship Award: Noah Reeder (Falling Waters, West Virginia); Tom and Jerri Rupert Awards (low girl and boy Yancey Scholars in the Bluegrass Junior): Olivia Hensley (Ashland), Cameron Phillips (Portsmouth); Low Final Round: Nicole Adam (Pinehurst, North Carolina) 69; Ian Glanton (Metter, Georgia) 68.

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rstanley@dailyindependent.com