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Li, Finnell follow through in AJGA

Having the overnight lead going into the final round of a golf tournament can be nerve-racking.

But Catherina Li and Skyler Finnell handled the position deftly, parlaying fast starts on Thursday into championships of the American Junior Golf Association tournament at Centennial Golf Club.

Li entered the third and final round ahead by two shots and went par, birdie, birdie to start. What kept her from running away with the Girls Division in the tournament for 12- to 18-year-olds was that her two playing partners, Allisen Corpuz and Amy Lee, did exactly the same thing.

Nevertheless, Li, who just completed her freshman year of high school in Kent, Wash., posted an even-par 72 and triumphed by three strokes over Lee, a long-hitting freshman-to-be from Brea, Calif.

Li carded a 5-under-par 211 for 54 holes.

Finnell did her one better, opening his round with a birdie and an eagle. He was tied with Lawrence Fu at the outset and appeared destined for an unforgettable round.

But his bogey-free tournament ended on the next hole, and he backed it up with another bogey on No. 4 to keep the race tight.

Finnell pulled ahead of Andrew Morgan with a birdie at No. 16 and held on for a one-stroke victory. His 70 put him at 8-under 208 for the tourney to edge Fu (71) and Morgan (71) by one and two shots, respectively.

The victories were the first in AJGA play for Li and Finnell, of Carmel, Calif.

Dylan Wu, of Medford, was even par in Round 3 and tied for 22nd with a 220.

Li's victory was especially sweet, for she traveled the continent in search of it.

Last week, she placed second in an AJGA event in Minnesota. The week before, she was in Oregon for the Rolex Tournament of Champions at Sunriver.

"I love to travel," she said. "It's fun, as long as I don't get burnt out."

That didn't seem to be a factor early, when the group got off to a blazing start.

"We were all thinking, 'Who's going to shoot 66,'" said Li. "Then all of a sudden we all, like, bogeyed three holes in a row. So the mind-set was definitely different. But I still was able to keep it together and not get mad at my bad shots and keep it even."

They didn't make as many bogeys as it seemed, but the momentum did wane.

Lee, who out-drove her opponents by 30-40 yards in some cases, was as close as two shots through No. 13, but back-to-back bogeys derailed her.

Li closed her round with a brilliant approach from 145 yards on No. 18 that came within a couple inches of going in.

"I just wanted to finish strong," said Li, who had just bogeyed the par-3 17th for the third straight day. "I really wanted to prove to myself that I could finish and keep the momentum going."

Finnell picked up where he left off Wednesday. He finished the second round with an eagle to pull into a tie for the lead.

On Thursday, he played the 534-yard second as he had the previous two rounds: lay up short left of the green, then chip on. The first two days he got up and down for birdie. This time, he sank the 40-foot chip to get to 9 under for the tournament.

"That was a fun start," he said. "That was a big momentum shift in my favor."

But the two bogeys gave a couple of the strokes back.

He made nothing but pars for the rest of the first nine and at the turn had a two-shot lead on both Fu and Morgan.

"I was able to battle back and stay in it and grind," said Finnell, who tied for ninth here a year ago. "I knew that the leaders were in my group, so I just wanted to keep an eye on what they were doing."

As Finnell continued to make pars, Morgan, of Long Beach, Calif., pulled into a tie with a birdie at No. 15.

Finnell answered to regain the lead a hole later when his second shot on the par 5 nearly reached the green on the left, and he chipped close and made the putt.

Morgan's last chance was to hole out for birdie from a greenside bunker on 18, but his attempt missed by inches. Fu, however, had chipped in there to move ahead of Morgan for second place by himself.

Finnell, mindful that Fu's antics pulled the latter within one, still had to convert his two-putt par.

"That was scary there for a second," said Finnell. "It was fun. It was exciting."

He enjoyed the course and the tournament, he said, but nothing surpassed the feeling of following through with the overnight lead.

"I was really scared," he said. "I've been in this position before — not in the AJGA — but in other tournaments, and it's a tough spot. When you're leading, you're afraid of what people are doing behind you, and it's hard to keep pushing.

"But to win it, knowing I can do it, is a great feeling, and I want to keep doing it."

The tournament is expected to return for the third straight year in 2012. The AJGA expects to announce the schedule sometime this fall.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Catherina Li chips onto the 17th green during Thursday's round at Centennial Golf Club. - Andy Atkinson