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Gianna Clemente making name for herself in return to Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Gianna Clemente was halfway through her practice round Friday at Augusta National when she looked over at the 18th green and couldn't help but think of the last time she was here, facing a big putt on the final hole at the home of the Masters.

Clemente doesn't recall the details, only that she missed it. This was the 2017 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. She was 9 years old.

“I think I probably left it short. That sounds like me,” she said with a laugh. “We're going to do a little better than that this year.”

Six years later, Clemente returns as somewhat of a prodigy. At 15, she is the youngest player to make the cut in the Augusta National Women's Amateur, doing so with a 32 on her closing nine at Champions Retreat.

She was only allowed to putt on the 18th green that last Augusta visit. On Friday, Clemente played a full practice round on the same course where the Masters will be played next week. Even for her age, Clemente is not prone to be overwhelmed.

Standing on the 12th tee in the heart of Amen Corner was an exception.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, this is actually real life.’ Yeah, I was looking forward to the whole day, but playing Amen Corner was really special,” she said.

Her odds of winning are long. She is tied after 36 holes, but 12 shots behind Rose Zhang — the NCAA champion at Stanford and the No. 1 amateur in women's golf for the last three years.

Still, Clemente already has shown she has game.

Last summer, after she was runner-up in the U.S. Girls Junior, she became the first female in two decades to earn her way into three straight LPGA Tour events by Monday qualifying. The last player to do that was Hee-Won Han, a 23-year-old pro. Clemente was 14.

Clemente was 5 when she went to the Dana Open in Ohio and posed with Morgan Pressel, a former prodigy herself who qualified for the U.S. Women's Open when she was 12 and went to win a major at 18. They met again at the Kroger Queen City Championship in Cincinnati, this time Clemente as the player and Pressel now in the broadcast booth for Golf Channel.

Zhang was 15 when she made the cut in the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur. She played her first LPGA major at age 14 and made the cut. But then, Zhang has been a big deal for a long time.

Zhang takes a five-shot lead into the final round Saturday at Augusta. A victory would give her titles in the U.S. Women's Amateur, the U.S. Junior Girls, the NCAA Championship and the Augusta National Women's Amateur in a span of four years.

Clemente recalls playing with Zhang during a practice round at a junior event three years ago, and it was another of those few moments that made her catch her breath.

“I was definitely watching her game close and comparing it to mine at the time," Clemente said. "Yeah, I’ll never forget that practice round.”

Zhang laughed at the memory because she also had been there before, a young teen in the presence of established names in amateur golf.

“She was doing so well, and she was so young,” Zhang said. “I think that Gianna is an amazing player, and I kind of knew from the start that she was going to be playing well because her mechanics are great, her swing is great. I think that she’s kind of a bright star for the future.”

Clemente's family moved from the Youngstown, Ohio, area to the Florida Gulf Coast, where the weather and home-schooling allows her more time and devotion to golf. This is what she wants.

But as much as she's consumed with golf, there is more to life. She turned 15 last week, and Clemente's mother surprised her with tickets to a Taylor Swift concert in Tampa in a few weeks.

“My mom hid it from me for three months because she wanted to surprise me for my birthday.” Clemente said. “It was a good surprise.”

But this is Clemente, who thrives on competition and loves winning. So when asked whether she was more excited for the concert or the final round Saturday at Augusta National, she didn't hesitate.

“Saturday, yeah,” she said. “Not even close.”

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