Alexa Pano, 14, in Hunt at SKYiGOLF Championship

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Fourteen-year-old Alexa Pano, the youngest player and lone amateur in this week’s field at the SKYiGOLF Championship – the Symetra Tour’s season-opening event – shot 3-under 69 on Thursday and trails the first-round leaders by two shots at Charlotte Harbor National Golf Club at Bobcat Trail.

Pano, ranked 77th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and coming off a victory at last week’s Dustin Johnson Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a junior event, battled just to save pars early in the round, but birdied both the par-5 holes coming in to post her lowest score in a professional event.

Only four pros in a starting field of 132 players bettered Pano’s score on Thursday. Jillian Hollis, Lauren Kim and Jessy Tang shot 67; Kyung Kim shot 68. Pano was one of five players to shoot 69.

“My short game was really consistent and good and I got some putts to go in on the back nine,” said Pano, a runner-up at the 2018 U.S. Girls Junior. “It makes you feel pretty good out there when you’re stiffing chips.” 

Pano had to get up and down on her first three holes on Thursday just to avoid making bogeys, and said she was “super unlucky” on her opening nine, as the distances she had into greens frequently left her with odd yardages and in-between clubs. Her lone bogey of the day came on the 190-yard fifth hole, the only time she missed a green and failed to get up and down.

On the back nine, Pano rolled in a 40-footer at the par-4 12th and took advantage of the closing par-5 holes. She hit 9-iron to 4 feet at the stout 585-yard 15th hole and got up and down for birdie from a back bunker at the closing hole. She played Charlotte Harbor National’s four par-5 holes in 3 under par. She hit 12 of 14 fairways, 12 greens in regulation and needed only 27 putts.

Pano, a high school freshman who is home-schooled, won on Sunday in South Carolina and then hopped into the family SUV with her father and caddie, Rick, for the long drive through the night to North Port for this week’s inaugural SKYiGOLF event. She said Thursday she and her dad sometimes like to schedule tournaments back-to-back just to test her game and on Thursday she said she definitely was feeling the momentum of winning her last start.

“I gained a lot of confidence in my putting last week,” she said.

Pano has been working for a few months with a new instructor –  Chris O’Connell of Dallas, who works with the PGA Tour’s Matt Kuchar – and she likes the quality she has seen in her game the last few months. She won two amateur events in Florida – the Dixie Amateur and the Doherty – and was runner-up at the South Atlantic Amateur. Pano has been invited to compete in the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur in a few weeks in Augusta, Ga.

She knows her competition is better this week in taking on a field filled with pros, but her goal doesn’t change. She is here to win.

“You learn a lot from playing with the pros. I learned a lot about my game versus theirs, and even learned stuff I didn’t know about myself,” said Pano, whose tall frame (she is 5 feet 10) and powerful game has drawn comparisons to the LPGA’s Lexi Thompson. “When I played in the LPGA event (Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic) last year, I played the next week (in a junior event) and shot 17 under par. So you definitely improve playing in these events, and you learn a lot.”

Pano, from Lake Worth, Fla., finished 45th in the Symetra Tour’s Four Winds Invitational last season (70-70-74) and missed the cut in her lone LPGA start, the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic (75-72). She tees off at 8:43 a.m.