Yana Wilson, 17, winner of last year’s Mizuho junior title, will head to LPGA Q-School this summer

Rose Zhang won’t be the only defending champion on hand at this week’s Mizuho Americas Open. Yana Wilson, winner of the inaugural junior edition of the Mizuho Americas Open, run by the AJGA, returns to Liberty National looking for her own repeat.

One of the most unique aspects of the Mizuho, hosted by Michelle Wie West, is the interaction junior players enjoy with LPGA pros. They share the same dining room, locker room, range and tee times as the junior event runs concurrently. Pros and juniors even exchange phone numbers as part of a big sister program.

Wilson, 17, of Henderson, Nevada, has taken the opportunity to ask a number of players about their decisions to play college golf or skip that step and go straight to the pros.

In the end, Wilson finds herself leaning toward what she’s long thought.

“It’ll be very last minute if I do go to college,” said Wilson, who is committed to Oregon, “but my mind is pretty much set on turning pro straight out of high school, and it’s always been like that. College is kind of plan B for me, and I told my coach that when I first committed to college.”

Wilson, who has several NIL deals, including Lululemon, said her parents support the decision to turn professional, and she doesn’t feel pressured about the decision.

“Honestly, for me personally, because I’m not as disciplined as Rose or Michelle that went to college,” she said, “for my type of personality, it’d be probably best for me to spend a year on tour taking those first bumps and bruises, and then going up and improving along the way.”

Wilson plans to attend Stage I of LPGA Qualifying School August 22-25 at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. But first, after the Mizuho, she’ll compete in the Amundi Evian Championship and U.S. Women’s Amateur. Wilson also took part in a practice session for the 2024 Curtis Cup earlier this year.

The 2023 AJGA Player of the Year, Wilson won the 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior over another hotshot junior, Gianna Clemente, 3 and 2. One of Wilson’s most dramatic victories came at the 2022 Hilton Grand Vacations Annika Invitational when she defeated Anna Davis in playoff by holing a 75-yard wedge shot for eagle on the first extra hole.

While this week’s LPGA event in Jersey City, New Jersey, features an elite field of 120 pros, the AJGA invitational boasts 24 of the best junior girls in the world. It was a thrill for Wilson to win the title alongside Zhang, who’s not long removed from the junior scene and a close friend.

It was also a full-circle moment for Wilson, who grew up attending the LPGA Kia Classic in the San Diego area where she would always follow her favorite player: Wie West.

“I was Michelle’s No. 1 biggest fan growing up,” said Wilson, whose father hails from Wie West’s home state of Hawaii. Wilson even has photos with Wie West from a decade ago and recently shared them with her over dinner. Wie West said she remembered her from all those years ago.

“You know, it’s all about paying it forward,” said Wie West during Mizuho media day. “It’s all about the next generation.”

Wilson won her first professional title earlier this year on the Cactus Tour and missed the cut at the Chevron Championship while playing sick.

When asked what her time alongside the pros has taught her, she pointed to course management.

“I think our swings are not that much different,” she said. “I mean, you walk up and down the range and some junior’s swings look really similar to some of the pro’s swings. Nobody’s swing is perfect set, except maybe Nelly Korda’s.

“Honestly, I think it’s all about how you play the course. You know, they don’t really make big mistakes out there, and that’s why they’re so good. They make pars, occasional birdies, and maybe an occasional bogey sometimes, because, you know, everyone’s human. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I took away. I know I can hit my golf shots just as good as the pros can. I know I can work the ball if I need to just as well as they can. So I think it’s really all about where you place the shots, and just minimizing mistakes is, I think, what they do best.”

Earlier this spring at the Epson Tour season opener, Wilson found herself in contention even after tragedy struck. Her caddie Rick Evans, a Liberty National looper who was on her bag for the win at Mizuho, collapsed during a practice round in Winter Haven, Florida, and later died.

Wilson wrote in a touching Instagram post that she would do her best to make him proud. She stayed in the tournament, recording three eagles in Saturday’s round to sit only two strokes back of the leaders but fell ill on Sunday and was forced to withdraw.

The caddie known as “Goose” will no doubt be in her mind all week at Liberty National as she aims to win one more junior crown.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek