*The following article was published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Usner's ace paves way to win; Chien repeats as girls champ
by Chip Souza | July 3, 2020 at 7:00 a.m.
JOHNSON -- Jack Usner picked the best time to hit the best shot of his life Thursday in the Stacy Lewis All-Star Invitational.
Usner, who caught fire in the final round, was clinging to a narrow lead after he bogeyed the par-four No. 12 hole. The bogey ended a run of four straight birdies that rocketed The Woodlands, Texas junior golfer to the top of the leaderboard at The Blessings Golf Club.
Standing over the ball on the No. 13 tee box, Usner was able to remain focused. As he swung through, the ball carried a high trajectory and landed softly on the green with a backspin that started tracking the hole. The ball rolled about 20 feet, then settled into the cup with a thunk.
"It was crazy," said Usner, a 15-year-old student at The Woodlands Christian Academy. "I was just thinking 'hit the green and get a two-putt and get out of there with a par. Just keep your head down.'
"But I hit it and it spun back right into the hole. It was a crazy feeling. I've never had one before."
The hole-in-one proved huge as Usner finished his third round with a 4-under 68 to win the boys championship by two strokes, firing a 4-under 212.
Usner, who trailed second-round leader Kush Arora by three strokes heading into Thursday's final round, quickly made up ground with back-to-back birdies at No. 1 and No. 2. But Usner saw that fast start evaporate quickly with a bogey at No. 5 and a double-bogey at No. 6 to move to one-over.
He was able to recover with birdies at No. 8 and No. 9 to finish the front nine at one-under 35.
"I've been doing this thing this week where I convince myself that I score different scores like if I went par, birdie, bogey, I convinced myself that I parred all three of those holes," Usner said. "So then I just keep moving on and keep making more pars instead of thinking that I just birdied that hole, then lost it. Just trying to put myself in a better mindset."
That mind-over-matter approach worked to perfection on the back nine. Usner continued his course assault with two more birdies at No. 10 and 11 before the bogey at No. 12.
After the ace at No. 13, Usner birdied No. 14 and No. 15. He closed the round with a bogey at No. 18 after his short par putt lipped out, but he remained atop the leaderboard.
"It was a heartbreaker, but I said to myself just get the ball in the hole," he said after the round. "I was proud of myself for not choking there."
Sihao Cong shot a 69 on Thursday and moved into second place at two-under, and Arora shot a one-over 73 in the final round to finish third.
The only drama on the girls' side was how many strokes defending champion Leigh Chien would win by after posting back-to-back 69s to take a commanding lead into the final round.
The answer was nine strokes as Chien torched the course with a 67 on Thursday, becoming the first two-time winner of the event.
"It's really cool," Chien said. "I love this tournament, so being able to win it twice is amazing."
With the win, Chien earned an exemption into a Symetra Tour event in August. She said she will begin practicing for that when she returns home to California.
Chien said she felt a little pressure coming in as the defending champion, but had several goals she wanted to achieve other than repeating.
"I wanted to beat my score from last year," she said. "Last year I had eight 3-putts and this year I had two, so that is a big improvement."
In the unique boy vs. girl format of the tournament, Chien was paired with Arora for Thursday's final round, since they were the leaders after two rounds.
Arora, who is also a Californian, said he was impressed with his playing partner's game.
"Leigh is a really good player," Arora said. "She can hit any shot on the green. She has a well-rounded game. This was a cool experience. She really inspired me to get back on the putting green."
Kiara Romero finished second at two-under after shooting a 68 on Thursday and Jasmine Koo shot a 68 to finish one-over and third. Bailey Shoemaker matched Chien's 67 and finished fourth at 6-over 222.
John Tyson, who built The Blessings course, said the event was special to see the young players who are learning the game.
"When Stacy brought us the idea of young kids seeing kids the golf course and testing themselves, she was an easy person to say yes to," Tyson said. "You watch them start to chase their dreams and the discipline they have. This is what life's about, watching these kids play the game of golf."
When the team scores were tallied Thursday, the girls earned bragging rights for the third straight year, claiming a five-stroke win over the boys.
"That feels good," Chien said, her smile as wide as her margin of victory, then adding with a laugh, "It was expected."