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Centennial gears up for top juniors

Reese Fisher wouldn't mind playing alongside the defending champion in the seventh annual American Junior Golf Association tournament at Centennial Golf Club this week.

There's a chance it could be in the final group on the final day, signifying he and Ling Kun Kong were in contention for the crown.

That's what happened in 2015, with Kong shooting a closing 68 to triumph. Fisher tied for fourth place after a 74 left him with a total score of 1-under 141 for the smoke-shortened event.

"It was fun to watch and play with him," said Fisher, who will be part of a small but formidable local contingent when the three-day tournament begins Tuesday. "He's a good player. I can't remember much, but he had a great last day, like no bogies. He was pretty solid."

The tournament features 144 top junior boy and girl players, ages 12 to 18. There are 11 states and five countries represented. Canada, China, Taiwan and Thailand are the others.

"It's another kind of neat field, with players from all over the country, and even the world," said Vince Domenzain, general manager and director of golf at Centennial. "It should be exciting."

The AJGA Centennial has a stellar reputation among the 115 stops on the circuit. Domenzain was named AJGA general manager of the year for 2015, and the tournament was voted most improved in 2012.

The week began Sunday with an AJGA qualifier, allowing players a chance to make it into the main tournament or score points that will help them get into future events.

Today, there's a junior amateur tournament, followed by practice for players.

There also is a free children's clinic at 2:30 p.m. on the practice range, with instruction from top junior players and AJGA and Centennial staff.

The 54-hole stroke-play tournament begins Tuesday, with a 36-hole cut after Wednesday's second round.

Spectators are welcome, and there is no admission charge. Tee times start at 7:30 a.m. each day and play continues all day.

There are 97 boys and 47 girls entered.

Locals have enjoyed success in previous years, with Rogue River's Kevin Murphy and Medford's Dylan Wu winning boys titles in 2012 and '13, respectively.

Fisher is the only area player on the boys side. He’s played a lot of tournaments at Centennial, which should give him an edge. But he isn’t getting ahead of himself.

“Golf’s a weird sport,” said Fisher, who as a junior at South Medford won the 6A state championship in the spring. “You can want to play well but you can’t really expect anything. I’m going in just trying to play my game and give myself a chance to win at the end of the week. I”ve been working at it a lot, and I’m feeling pretty confident.”

Three local girls — Central Point's Kiana Oshiro and Daniele Giles and Medford's Staesha Flock — are entered.

In high school play, Crater junior Oshiro captured the 5A girls title, setting an all-time scoring record of 67 on the first day; Crater's Giles won the 2015 5A girls crown as a junior and has qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur next week; and St. Mary's junior Flock placed second individually as the Crusaders ran away with the 4A/3A/2A/1A championship.

The locals figure to be in the mix again, said Domenzain, despite the high level of competition.

Domenzain said the juniors' low scoring "never ceases to amaze me on a course that's pretty tough for both the boys and girls. It's not short by any means. They're just getting better and better."

Some aspects of their games stick out, he said.

“The speed of their swings, which correlates to distance, and then, I think, their no-fear attitude,” said Domenzain. “They want to just dominate the course and go out and fire it down the middle as far as they can, then fire at the pin and make as many birdies as they can. It’s kind of the new breed of golfer. They’re looking to go low every time they tee it up, and they do.”

There looms the possibility the tournament could have its first, or even second, repeat champion.

In addition to the return of Kong, from Arcadia, Calif., who led last year's boys field with consecutive 68s, Ziyi Wang of Beijing is back in the girls tourney.

Wang, who has committed to Stanford, played here for the first time in 2012, placing second. A year later, she shot a first-round 65 — the women's competitive course record — en route to a record score of 203. She didn't play the past two years.

Oshiro had the top local finish last year, tying for second. She shot 73-69 for a 142, two shots behind winner Komkamol Sukaree of Bangkok. Giles was seventh with 72-73 for a 145.

Ten players in the field have signed or committed to colleges, among them Giles (Oregon).

Others to watch are Connor Howe on the boys side and Yu Wen Lu for the girls.

Howe, from Ogden, Utah, is 185th in the world junior rankings. He won the Hale Irwin Colorado Junior this year and had two top-fives last year.

Lu, from Shanghai, and who won't graduate from high school until 2021, has two wins in six junior events, including one this year. She tied for fourth in her other two events of 2016 and is ranked 166th.

This year’s tournament was moved up several weeks and should avoid issues that plagued the previous two.

Last year, smoke-filled skies from wildfires forced cancellation of the first round. The year before, the schedule was completed, but it was jumbled considerably by thunderstorms.

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

Central Point's Kiana Oshiro is one of the top players entering this week's seventh annual American Junior Golf Association tournament at Centennial Golf Club. In high school play, the Crater junior captured the 5A girls title, setting an all-time scoring record of 67 on the first day. MT FILE PHOTO
Reese Fisher, one of the top players in this week's seventh annual American Junior Golf Association tournament at Centennial Golf Club, won the 6A state championship in the spring for South Medford. MT FILE PHOTO