Seven of the eight quarter-finalists Thursday at the 99th annual Women’s Southern Golf Association amateur championship at Gaillardia Country Club were college players. The exception was 15-year-old phenom Mika Liu, who reached the finals.
Liu, a Beverly Hills, Calif., native who moved across the country to attend the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., will play Oklahoma State’s Jayde Panos in a 36-hole final on Friday.
“To make the finals against all these great college players means so much,” said Liu, who just completed her freshman year of high school. “I can learn a lot from them. I’m really looking forward to the finals, another learning experience for me.”
Kayli Quinton, who will be a junior at Arkansas, birdied four of the first 10 holes to build a three-hole lead in the semifinals against Liu.
The match turned on the 11th hole, when Liu chipped in off the green and Quinton missed a 10-foot birdie putt.
“I wasn’t expecting her to chip in, but knowing her game, I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Quinton said. “Knowing she never messes up I think got to me a little mentally. She’s so solid. I played well, but she was stronger at the end.”
Liu notched six birdies, including on No. 14 and No. 15, to tie the match. She won it on 18 by reaching the 500-yard, par 5, in two shots. Quinton had to punch out from beneath a tree, the only time she missed a fairway in the match.
Earlier this year, Liu, who sometimes drills 300-yard drives, finished fifth in a pro tournament. She declined the prize money at the Volvik Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., to maintain her amateur status.
She’s already earned medalist honors in 10 national events, including the 2011 and 2013 USGA U.S. Girls junior qualifier. She also was on the winning 2012 and 2013 U.S. Juniors Team at the Junior Masters, the first player selected to Team USA two years in a row.
“I knew she was a fantastic player,” Quinton said. “I actually played with her when she was 12 and I was 17 at a U.S. junior event in Chicago. She even hit farther than me back then. She’s so long off the tee and has a great short game. She’s an incredible player.”
Liu advanced to the semifinals by defeating her 21-year-old sister, Marika, who just completed her junior year at Yale. Little sister won the match 5-and-4.
“I knew I’d have to play well to beat her,” Mika said. “It was fun to finally have an experience with her like that on the golf course. We had some conversations, but it’s still competition. We both really wanted to win.”
Panos, 21, recently completed her career at OSU. She will remain in Stillwater to finish her degree, return home to Australia for a couple of months, then plans to turn pro next year. She shot 4-under in the semis, winning 3-and-2 over Baylor freshman Maggie Beth Byers, from San Antonio.
“I haven’t made the finals of an amateur (event) in a really long time,” Panos said. “I’ve been working really hard on my ball-striking and my putting, so it feels great to see it’s really paying off.”
Panos said reaching the finals of the WSGA amateur ranks among her top career highlights.
An accomplished junior player in Australia before she was recruited to play at OSU, Panos is aware of Liu’s legendary status as one of the top junior players in the world.
“We’re both playing really well,” Panos said. “I think it will be a really good match. If I keep playing solid I hope to get the results I want.”
The WSGA is an 11-state region that includes amateur players of all ages from Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.