Leblanc crowned Junior Open champion

Kevin Leblanc overcame tough conditions and late challenges to land the biggest win of his young career after the Ireland international was crowned 2014 Junior Open champion at West Lancashire Golf Club.

The 15-year-old became only the second Irish player to land the prestigious title after Cian McNamara at Royal Musselburgh in 2002.  It was a composed performance as sporadic downpours and a constant breeze tested the mettle of all the players in the closing stages.

In the end Leblanc signed for a two-over 74 for a five-over-par total of 221, one shot ahead of Italy’s Teodoro Soldati and Diane Baillieux from Belgium, who both carded 76’s in the final round.

“I couldn’t be any happier at the moment,” said Leblanc in his typically understated manner. “It has been a fantastic week, a well-run tournament and a great one for me personally. It is definitely my biggest achievement so far.”

Soldati and Baillieux had shared a one stroke overnight lead on two-over-par heading into the final round with Leblanc a shot behind in a tie for third.  It was Soldati’s compatriot Angelica Moresco who raced into the early lead after picking up two birdies in her opening five holes. However the 15-year-old fell away in the latter stages and a 78 left her tied seventh.

Playing in the penultimate group, Leblanc reached the turn in one-over-par 37 before torrential rain became a real factor. After making bogey on the par-three 17th he stood on the 18th tee five-over-par for the tournament. He split the fairway with his tee shot and his approach finished 15-feet from the hole. He missed the birdie attempt but secured par and had to wait to see how things would unfold in the final group.

Soldati needed a par at 18 to tie but a pulled tee shot meant his approach flew the green into a seemingly impossible lie. The 14-year-old played a deft pitch to 20-feet but missed the crucial par putt.

At the same time Baillieux needed a birdie to force a play-off. The 16-year-old played her approach to 12-feet but missed the birdie and Leblanc was confirmed as the new champion. It was welcome relief to The Island Golf Club’s new champion – and also to his dad Hugh who was a bundle of nerves throughout.

“I hit a lot of good shots today. My gameplan is simple – for any competition – hit as many greens and fairways as possible. If I hole the putts I have a good chance of winning.

“Being from The Island you figure out pretty quickly what you need to do in these conditions and the courses are very similar,” said Leblanc, who came straight to West Lancashire from competing in the European Boys’ Championship in Norway and didn’t even have time for a practice round. 

As for the runners-up, they were both gracious in defeat. “I made a bad start, three-over after four holes but came back strongly. When I see Kevin winning on five-over I think what might have been but it’s fine, it was still a good week and I can look forward to Hoylake now,“ said Baillieux.

As for Soldati, he learned from the experience. “I was unlucky with some bad lies like on 18, but that’s links golf. I cannot complain, it was still a good week. I played well in conditions we don’t often play in. This week will help me improve as a player.”

The biggest moves on the final day came from China’s Xinying Wang, who carded the low round 69 to tie fourth on an eight-over par total of 224. She was joined by Japan’s Yumi Matsubara, the lowest handicap player in the field at plus six, who closed with a 70.

Local favourite and West Lancashire member Hollie Muse left herself with too much to do and had to settle for tied 12th on 14-over-par after a 79 that included nine straight pars on the back nine.

“I struggled to get it going but I’m proud of myself and it has been a great week for the club,” said 14-year-old Muse, who still has much time on her hands.

The biennial Junior Open will next be played at Kilmarnock Barassie in Ayrshire, Scotland from July 11-13th, 2016 in the same week of The Open Championship at Royal Troon.

For the final leaderboard visit Championships.RandA.org.