NORTH PORT, Fla. (March 9, 2019) – Asked if she ever expected to be tied for the lead in a professional golf tournament with only 18 holes left to play, 14-year-old amateur Alexa Pano of Lake Worth, Fla., didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yes, sir,” she politely told a reporter. “That’s why I played in the tournament.”
At the inaugural $250,000 SKYiGOLF Championship, Pano is on the brink of history, trying to become the youngest player ever to win a Symetra Tour event. Hannah O’Sullivan, who now plays at Duke, was 16 years old when she won the 2015 Gateway Classic in Arizona.
The “youngest” thing is something that the uber-talented Pano has grown accustomed to hearing, though on Saturday at Charlotte Harbor National she said she hadn’t heard it in a while.
“It’s something I’m kind of used to it. Playing up in events a lot, I’d hear ‘youngest person ever’ so often,” she said. “It’s actually kind of gone away from me. Now that I’m 14, I’m kind of ‘old’ and can’t win the ‘youngest’ thing. But here we are again.”
When the first-year Symetra Tour event was announced by title sponsor SKYiGOLF in October, Rich Smith, the company’s founder and CEO, knew instantly that he would be offering one of the tournament’s two sponsor exemption spots to Pano, a player he has known since she was 8.
“I really believe that she can win this golf tournament,” Smith said at last month’s tournament media day.
Jean Reynolds (67), Lauren Kim (70) – two players who have won on tour – and second-round leader Allison Emrey (73) are tied with Pano for the lead at 8-under 208. Reynolds and Pano will play in the last group, teeing off at 1:45 p.m.
“It’s always fun playing in the lead groups, and having the field chase you, and trying to hold onto that,” said Lauren Kim, who is playing nicely heading into her title defense next week at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic in Winter Haven. Kim, from Los Altos, Calif., joked that she cannot stand the humidity of Florida, but she cannot argue her success in the state. Her college team, Stanford, won an NCAA Championship in 2015 just down the road in Bradenton at The Concession, and she captured her first Symetra Title a year ago about two hours north of here.
“Florida has brought me a lot of golf luck,” said Kim, who made 14 LPGA starts a year ago. “It’s a little bit crazy.”
Asked if she felt any nerves at all on Saturday afternoon, Pano, who last week won the Dustin Johnson World Junior Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C., by 12 shots, said she did not. “It just felt like a normal round – same disappointing misses, same exciting birdies,” she said.
Pano had a chance to lead alone with two good birdie chances at her final two holes, but missed a 6-footer at 17 and failed to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the par-5 closing hole.
“I’m not like mad about it, but you look at it and you think, it could have been a lot better,” she said. “Tomorrow, it’ll be the same as today. Just show up and shoot as low as I can, I guess.”
Pano played in a Japan LPGA event (Yonex Open) when she was 11, and last year at 13 made one start each on the Symetra (T-45) and LPGA tours (she missed the cutting her LPGA start.) She has had some quality amateur results in the past few months (victories at the Dixie Amateur and Ione Jones-Doherty Amateur, and ran second at the South Atlantic Amateur). She arrived to Charlotte Harbor National believing in her talent and her game.
“I felt really confident with my game coming into this event, and it’s really nice seeing results showing up, and seeing birdies happen, and seeing my hard work paying off,” Pano said. “Hopefully it can pay off in a big way tomorrow.“
If so, history awaits her.