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Fantastic finish: Kozak edges Oshiro on final hole for AJGA girls title

The symbolism was eerie.

At the 17th hole of what had turned into an epic golf match, Kiana Oshiro and Kayla Kozak hit tee shots on the par 3.

The ball flights weren’t carbon copies, but almost. When the two players, who parried and thrust and leapfrogged each other for four hours — only to be tied, at this point — got to the green, they saw something neither had witnessed before. The balls were touching.

They and the gallery shared a laugh. How appropriate.

As the drama intensified in their battle for the championship at the American Junior Golf Association tournament at Centennial Golf Club Thursday, Oshiro knew one thing to be true.

“It was going to be really close,” she said.

Ultimately, the riveting duel was decided on the final hole of the three-day tournament. After each hit their balls into the right fairway bunker on 18 — no, this time they weren’t nestled against each other — Kozak managed to make an impressive par, and Oshiro stumbled to a double bogey.

The AJGA victory was a first for Kozak, 18, who spent a significant part of her childhood in Coos Bay and Grants Pass before moving east. The Bluffton, South Carolina, resident shot a 3-under 69 for a three-day score of 210.

Oshiro, from Central Point, had a 71 and a 212.

Their playing partner, Hailey Borja, of Lake Forest, California, shot a 72 and placed third at 214.

In the boys competition, Trey Davis, of Plumas Lake, California, ran away from the field. His final-round 5-under 67 gave him a 201 and a six-stroke win over Sam Jean, of Greenwood, Indiana. Jean’s 65 was the best round of the day.

Triston Gardner, of Medford, shot 75 and tied for 34th at 222.

Oshiro had mixed feelings about the jousting she and Kozak did, particularly over a wild five finishing holes.

On one hand, she said, “It was fun.”

On the other, “It was lots of anxiety.”

And her final hole — a heavy bunker shot, then a chip that came up short, then a three-putt — left her distraught.

“I just wanted to play my best,” said the 18-year-old, who will play in college in the fall at Western Texas College. “And even if I would have still lost, it would have been fine. It’s just, going out like that kind of sucked.”

As low as Oshiro was, Kozak was that high.

“I’m overwhelmed with emotion, and I’m very, very proud of myself,” said Kozak, who has attended the International Junior Golf Academy for four years and will soon enroll at the University of Central Florida.

Kozak’s mother was a doctor in Coos Bay before moving her practice to Grants Pass. Kozak lived there from ages 6 to 13, and recalls playing an Oregon Golf Association event at Centennial. She finished with a handful of pars and shot 81, placing second.

Her family moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, five years ago, and shortly after, her mother died of a heart attack at 48.

When Kayla and her father planned their first trip in three years to the West Coast to visit family and friends, this week’s tournament fit into the schedule.

Oshiro and Kozak entered the final day tied at 3 under, each having gone 70-71 the first two days.

Oshiro birdied the first hole to take the lead. Two holes later, Kozak took it back with a birdie-bogey exchange. Two holes later, another such exchange put Oshiro in front. Birdies for Kozak at Nos. 8 and 11 gave her a one-shot lead.

Then it got crazy.

At the par-3 14th, Kozak hit her tee shot long, shorted herself on a chip and made bogey. Oshiro rolled in a slightly curvy, 18-foot birdie putt for her first lead in seven holes.

Kozak was frustrated. She used too much club off the tee.

“Instead of being emotional and sad,” she said, “I’ve changed a lot, and I got this angry energy inside me. I wanted to finish strong. I didn’t give up at all, and normally I would.”

At the par-4 14th, both players busted their drives to near the 100-yard marker. Oshiro’s approach checked up and left her well short. Then Kozak took aim from 94 yards.

After her best drive of the tournament, she went through her pre-shot routine, felt confident and pulled the trigger. The ball hit near the front of the green that sloped away, and trundled to — and into — the cup.

Kozak had never holed out in a tourney, she said. It was worth a Jordan Spieth-like double-arm pump.

“That basically won me the tournament,” she said.

Well, not quite.

Oshiro made a two-putt birdie on the 16th to pull into a tie again, but not before more theatrics from Kozak.

She hit her drive into the right hay on the par 5, punched out with a 9-iron to 94 yards — the same distance she had on 15 — and hit the cup and bottom of the flagstick with her approach.

The loud clank stunned onlookers.

“One inch lower, that would have been in,” Oshiro marveled to her opponent.

Instead, the ball caromed some 30 feet, and Kozak made par.

After an amicable separation of the balls on 17, each made par.

Then it was on to 18. Both players hit driver and found the bunker.

In an earlier round, Oshiro entertained using less club but eschewed the notion. She did so again.

“Go big or stay home,” she said.

Kozak had hit two sand shots in the tournament, both fat. When Oshiro caught too much sand on her attempt, it amped up Kozak.

“This is the opening,” she told herself. “This is where I’ve got to take her down.”

Kozak picked it clean but pulled her shot left, pin high. Borja was in the same area.

The latter hit a nice chip that released to the hole, and Kozak took note. She then lobbed hers to 3 feet.

When Oshiro missed her par putt, all Kozak needed was a make for the title. She shook the nerves out of her hands and ran it in. Oshiro, her mind likely elsewhere, missed her short bogey putt.

Kozak thought back to her youthful round at Centennial.

“I can see and appreciate how I’ve changed and matured since then,” she said. “It’s nice to make a full circle.”

Meanwhile, in the boys division, Davis began the day with a three-shot lead and didn’t give anyone a chance to threaten. He made three birdies in his first six holes, and added three more and a bogey on the back nine.

His was the second-best score in the eight-year history of the tournament, with the exception of 2015, when wildfire smoke limited play to two rounds. George Cunningham’s 199 in the inaugural year, 2010, is the record.

Davis made 18 birdies and three bogeys in his first AJGA win.

BOYS TOP 10

1. Trey Davis, Plumas Lake, Calif., 69-65-67—201

2. Sam Jean, Greenwood, Ind., 71-71-65—207

3. Jake Marek, Westlake Village, Calif., 71-70-68—209

T4. Carl Jano Corpus, Quezon City, Philippines, 72-70-68—210

T4. Ethan Ashbrook, Santa Maria, Calif., 72-68-70—210

T6. Max Holm, Walnut Creek, Calif., 72-70-70—212

T6. Scotty Kennon, Bandon, 71-66-75—212

T8. Blake Lorenz, Peoria, Ariz., 69-74-70—213

T8. Ryan Smith, Carlsbad, Calif., 70-73-70—213

T10. Brian Stark, Kingsburg, Calif., 69-76-69—214

T10. Ben Lorenz, Peoria, Ariz., 71-70-73—214

OTHERS

34. Triston Gardner, Medford, 74-73-75—222

GIRLS TOP 10

1. Kayla Kozak, Bluffton, S.C., 70-71-69—210

2. Kiana Oshiro, Central Point, 70-71-71—212

3. Hailey Borja, Lake Forest, Calif., 71-71-72—214

T4. Therese Warner, Kennewick, Wash., 71-74-71—216

T4. Jing Wen Lu, Shanghai, China, 72-75-69—216

T4. Nicole Abelar, Mandaluyong, Philippines, 73-69-74—216

T7. Noelle Song, Stevenson Ranch, Calif., 77-74-66—217

T7. Yu Wen Lu, Shanghai, China, 72-72-73—217

T7. Morgan Goldstein, Las Vegas, 73-71-73—217

T10. Jana Ni, Beijing, China, 79-69-70—218

T10. Adithi Anand, Redmond, Wash., 70-75-73—218

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

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Kayla Kozak, of Bluffton, S.C., chips onto the 18th green in the AJGA tournament at Centennial Golf Club on Thursday, setting up a 3-foot par putt for the victory. [LARRY STAUTH JR./FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]
Kiana Oshiro, of Central Point, reacts to her par putt on the 18th hole in the final round of the AJGA tourney at Centennial. [LARRY STAUTH JR./FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]