Three qualify for United States Junior Amateur

Alex Lee, of Orlando, hits out of a sand trap during the U.S. Junior Amateur Sectional qualifier golf tournament Tuesday at Palm-Aire Country Club.
Alex Lee, of Orlando, hits out of a sand trap during the U.S. Junior Amateur Sectional qualifier golf tournament Tuesday at Palm-Aire Country Club.

Sampson-Yunhe Zheng’s practice round for the United States Junior Amateur qualifier at Palm-Aire Country Club’s Champions Course was up to his standards, so the 14-year-old from Kissimmee didn’t expect a low-scoring first round.

Zheng, though, didn’t need to grind out the opening round on Monday as he poured in putt after putt.

A sparkling 65 left him with a four-shot cushion for one of three qualifying berths awarded at the 6,836-yard layout in southern Manatee County, and he kept it steady on Tuesday with a 1-under par 71 to snag one of them with a 136 total.

“I just tried to hit all greens and hit all fairways,” said Zheng, who qualified in his first attempt. “I made everything. I made so many putts that I was not expecting on the first day, which was great.”

Qualifying alongside Zheng into next month’s U.S. Junior Amateur at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., were Windermere’s Manuel Girona (68-67—135) and Jacksonville’s Brandon Mancheno (70-68—138).

Girona didn’t miss a green in regulation en route to a bogey-free second round that saw him become medalist of the local qualifier.

“That made it a bit easier,” Girona said.

The University of Florida commit will make his U.S. Junior Amateur debut when the tournament begins July 18. To get there, Girona said he worked on his putting prior to the local qualifier at Palm-Aire Country Club.

“Lately, I’ve been hitting many greens,” said Girona, a rising senior at Windermere Prep. “But dropping those little birdies there were the ones that kind of stand out.”

For Mancheno to qualify for a second year in a row, he needed to reverse a one-shot deficit after a first-round 70. Mancheno said his plan was to make birdies, because 68 or 69 would make it for him.

That foresight came to fruition with Mancheno’s 4-under par 68 in Tuesday’s final round. It gave him a two-shot cushion for the last qualifying spot as IMG Academy’s Natheethorn Teacharuangchit and Lakeland’s Colin Kresl fired 140s for the 36-hole tournament. Those two battled in a playoff for the first and second alternate spots.

Teacharuangchit secured the first alternate position in a playoff.

Mancheno avoided needing extra holes to determine his qualifying fate with a 3-under front side and a birdie on the par-4 10th. That fast start keyed his low final round, assuring himself a return to the U.S. Junior Amateur. Last year, he qualified for the match play portion of that tournament before bowing out in the second round. This year, Mancheno said he has a different match play strategy if he gets that far at The Honors Course in July.

“You don’t have to make pars,” said Mancheno, a rising senior at Jacksonville Mandarin High. “You can go out and be aggressive, because it doesn’t matter if you lose one hole. Bogeys won’t kill you or anything in match play. ... You just try to make the most birdies.”

The shot of the day belonged to Fort Myers’ Mark Iwinski, who aced the par-3 ninth. Lakewood Ranch’s Ryan Kinkead, who plays high school golf at Saint Stephen’s, tied for ninth with a 73-72—145.