Resilience Knows No Rest: Yana Wilson’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Victory
Kick her down once, and she’ll come back even stronger, with a trophy in hand
By Jordan Perez
July 24, 2022
It’s not often you find a junior grateful she lost, but this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior champion believes it was destiny.
“Thank goodness that I played Rose last year because it really helped me and motivated me,” Yana Wilson says of her 2021 opponent. Rose Zhang defeated Wilson in the quarterfinals 5&4 en route to her 2021 title and was eager to pass the torch. This year the allies kept in touch all week during the event at Olde Stone in Bowling Green, Ky.
That torch was well lit during Wilson’s campaign. A heat index in the triple digits was the second biggest threat to her 3&2 victory on Saturday over close friend and fellow junior star Gianna Clemente.
Wilson and Clemente have a rich history as elite juniors; they have even tried to qualify for the Women’s Amateur Four-Ball together. But all week long, the two kept their distance — zero words exchanged before the 36-hole final.
“She’s a great friend, she’s someone that I can really relate to with golf and everything,” says Wilson. “[But] we’re both very competitive.”
If you watched Wilson at any point in the week, you probably did a double-take. Her athletic swing mimics that of a powerful tour pro, as she averages 275 yards off the tee. Her father, Jim, says the swing, like her win, was all under Yana’s direction.
“We practice hard, we go over the course, we go look for sight lines, yardage carries. We do all the prep work,” Jim says. “And then once that’s done, then I just go away. This win was all on her own.”
At age 8, golf didn’t offer young Yana a warm welcome. “We would go and we’d get killed,” Jim says. After finish last at three tournaments, Yana had seen enough. “Dad, get me better,” she told him. He says after that moment, Yana never looked back.
That ferocity was present for Wilson’s 6:30 a.m. tee time on Saturday. Clemente’ held the advantage for seven holes, but as the players approached the turn, Wilson emerged with her first birdie of the day. A costly bogey threw off Clemente’s rhythm on the back nine. She squared the match on No. 17 before Wilson won the 18th hole to go 1 up.
Yes, ball-striking was critical at Olde Stone, but a Chipotle bowl and a special handshake with caddie Tate Hanks helped Wilson pull through.
Hanks was an 11th-hour recruitment during last Sunday’s practice round. Wilson parted ways with her original choice and asked the caddie of friend Kiara Romero if he knew anyone who could help. Tate appeared on the first day of the tournament without much golf knowledge. That’s exactly what Wilson wanted.
“I don’t really care how experienced they are,” Wilson says. “It’s good to have a buffer.” His jokes made all the difference.
Clemente regained a slight edge right after the break, but the self-strategizing began to pay off in the final stretch. Wilson tied things up with a two-putt for birdie on the par-5 27th, then Clemente failed to get up and down on the 28th and made bogey. Wilson never trailed again.
“Honestly, I try not to get affected by little things,” Wilson says, “and I feel like sometimes the opponents that I play against are really fiery, and if stuff doesn’t go their way, they get upset. I feel like I’m just a very steady player.”
Birdie conversions from Wilson, plus putting woes from Clemente on the last three holes, resulted in some visible frustration. The champion closed out the match on the 34th, all smiles as young fans doused her in water — for which she was grateful. The Nevada native wasn’t playing in weather conditions too unfamiliar, but the weight of the week and the heat wore on her during her rally.
“It was brutal,” she says. “I think everything just kind of caught up to me and I just was pretty exhausted.” After finishing as the third seed in stroke play and winning six times in match play, the 15-year-old was rewarded: a trip to the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach, an invitation to Augusta National Women’s Amateur for the second time, and a two-year exemption into the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
The victory capped off a remarkable streak of golf: She won the 2022 Annika Invitational and dipped her toes in the Epson Tour with a start in May. But the U.S. Girls’ Junior was the toughest week of all.
“My dad always tells me, ‘Yana, just go win the U.S. Girls’ Junior. It’s like the easiest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open,’” she says. Then with a laugh, she adds, “And I can tell you after today, it is not the easiest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open.”