Junior Orange Bowl International Championship Preview


CORAL GABLES, Fla. (Jan. 2, 2024 Though he no longer calls South Florida home, Carson Baez considers his entry in the Junior Orange Bowl International golf tournament something of a full-circle moment.


Growing up in nearby Palmetto Bay, he’d come to watch top juniors from around the world take on historic Biltmore Golf Club. He not only can rattle off names of former champs like Karl Vilips and Jerry Ji, but such current collegians as Tommy Morrison (Texas) and Yuki Moriyama (UNLV).


“It holds a special place in my heart to make this a possibility,” said Baez, who now lives in the Orlando area and arrives as the reigning Future Masters champion. “Putting this one on my schedule was really cool.”


And in a year when both the boys’ and girls’ fields seem wide open, there’s no reason to think Baez couldn’t end the week with another prestigious trophy in his collection.


“I want to be part of that prestigious history, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he said. “But I have a lot of confidence and feel like I’m capable of adding my name to that list.”


On the girls’ side, Boca Raton’s Kayla Bryant takes the spotlight after last year’s third-place finish, holding her own against a pair of prime opponents in Anna Davis and Belgium’s Savannah de Bock.


Davis is a former Junior PGA and Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion now enrolled at Auburn. De Bock, who won the 2022 European Ladies Amateur, signed with the University of Georgia.


“It was super-inspiring to play alongside Anna and Savannah. Now I have a lot more faith in myself and my game,” Bryant said. “I think I’m coming back this year stronger, much more experienced and definitely ready for this week.”


Bryant is one of just three girls’ top-10 finishers returning this year, with just two top-10 returnees on the boys’ side. In all, 58 boys and 37 girls are set to tee it up in the tournament’s 60th edition.


“I’ve played a lot of big tournaments (in 2023) and learned a lot from the tough competition,” said Canada’s Eric Zhao, back after last year’s seventh-place finish. “I think I’m an experienced player when it comes to playing against tough fields.”


The competition also includes England’s Kris Kim, winner of the British Boys’ Amateur and medalist at the European Boys team event, while countryman Ben Bolton captured the European Young Masters.


Floridian Darren Zhou was runner-up behind Baez at the Future Masters and carries some momentum after winning November’s Optimist Tournament of Champions in Miami. Peru’s Mauricio Tello won the Chilean Junior and posted six other top-2s in 2023.


On the girls’ side, France’s Sara Brentcheneff doubled up at the French Ladies’ Amateur and Swiss Golf International, while Switzerland’s Yana Beeli won the Swiss Junior and Annika Invitational Europe. South Africa’s Gia Raad won the English Junior Stroke Play and South African Junior Stroke Play.


“Every girl this week knows they have an opportunity to win,” Bryant said. “I’m just hoping to play well, and everything hopefully will fall into place.”


All seek to join a list of Junior Orange Bowl champions that includes Tiger Woods (1991), LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park (2002), LPGA major winners Lexi Thompson (2009) and Brooke Henderson (2013), resurgent PGA Tour winner Camilo Villegas (1999) and current Australian Open champion Joaquin Niemann (2014).


“It’s an event that so many big names have been a part of,” said Baez, who last week finished fourth in the Orlando Amateur against a slate of mostly college talent.


It’s the latest result in a strong run for Baez since his surprising Future Masters triumph, breaking a winless drought that had been going on three years.


“It was at a different course this year with not as big a field, so I didn’t have a lot of expectations,” he said. “In my mind, I didn’t feel as much pressure. I’ll play and just see what happens. Then I led after Round 1, led after Round 2 — OK, this is sort of a big deal.”


After a lengthy drought, each of the past two boys’ champions have been South Florida products — Nicholas Prieto (2022) and Jay Brooks a year ago. Now the drought is on the girls’ side, where Bryant had no hesitation in naming the last one.


“Lexi, yeah,” she said. “I’ve said it like 50 times this week, but I have a lot more faith in myself, a lot more confidence. It’ll be fun, and I’m trying not to add too much pressure. Whatever happens, happens.”


This year’s field brings together entrants from such diverse locales as Ukraine, Paraguay, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Zimbabwe, Peru, Trinidad & Tobago, Iceland, Turkey and Ghana.


Live scoring can be found all week at JrOrangeBowl.org/golf.


The Golf Championship is one of 10 athletic, artistic and cultural events that make up the Junior Orange Bowl International Youth Festival, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023-24. The festival draws more than 7,500 youth participants to South Florida’s community each year.


For more information on the Golf Championship or other Junior Orange Bowl activities, visit JrOrangeBowl.org.