Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.
Golfers face plenty of them on the course. But one of the hardest choices for some of the world’s top female amateurs is between invitations to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the ANA Inspiration, the first women’s professional major of the year. Now in its second year, the Augusta National tournament begins April 1, while the ANA Inspiration starts a day later. As long as the tournaments are staged concurrently, which appears likely at least in the near term, a player can’t compete in both.
This year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur will feature 72 amateurs from around the world. Among those who received invitations were Ireland’s Olivia Mehaffey, Australia’s Gabriela Ruffels, China’s Angelina Ye, and Americans Kaitlyn Papp and Rose Zhang. But those players politely declined the trip down Magnolia Lane, choosing instead to play in the ANA Inspiration, to which they were also invited.
The decision wasn’t clear cut, as the reflections of three of these players indicate.
“I was very nervous and very young when I played my first major. Having that experience and just feeling more comfortable out there now (is important).” – Olivia Mehaffey
Mehaffey, who expects to graduate from Arizona State University in May, has imminent LPGA Tour aspirations. A competitor in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur last year, she advanced to the final round at Augusta National before finishing T23. Rather than return to Augusta, however, Mehaffey opted for her fourth start in a major championship (she has also played in two AIG Women’s British Opens and a U.S. Women’s Open) to evaluate how she fares against the professionals.
“I was very nervous and very young when I played my first major,” Mehaffey said. “I learned a lot from every major I played in, especially the pros’ games, what part of your game has to be very good. Having that experience and just feeling more comfortable out there now (is important).”
The ANA Inspiration’s proximity to Arizona State also factored into her decision, Mehaffey said. The first women’s major is played at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“It’s the same course as (the first stage of LPGA) Q-School, so there was just a lot of things that swayed me that way,” she said.
Zhang, a 16-year-old junior who is No. 8 in the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, competed in the 2018 ANA Inspiration and made the cut as a 14-year-old, having earned an exemption by virtue of winning that year’s ANA Junior Inspiration. Last year, facing the decision between Augusta and ANA for the first time, she opted for the former. But she’ll return to the California desert this year.
“The Augusta National Women’s Amateur is truly a prestigious event,” Zhang said. “It wasn’t an easy decision to pass up Augusta (this year), but I felt like playing the ANA is definitely going to be a great opportunity to test my game against the professionals and since I have played at the ANA before, I wanted to go back because I had really fun memories of the event itself and I learned a lot as an amateur. So, I wanted to go back and experience it all over again.”
Because Zhang is a teenager and plans to enroll at Stanford University in 2021, the Irvine, Calif., resident believes she will have more chances to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
“Playing a professional event, a major event like the ANA, is not something you’ll get every single year,” she said.
Papp, a University of Texas junior, finished T5 at Augusta National last year, and it’s fair to say she’d have been among the favorites to win this year. But like Mehaffey and Zhang, she chose the opportunity to test her game against the pros, having first done so last year at the U.S. Women’s Open, where she missed the cut.
“I learned a lot about my game (at the U.S. Women’s Open), and then it’s just about fine-tuning your game for these majors,” the 21-year-old said. “I’m kind of hoping for a similar experience at the ANA because I’ve played in the ANA Junior Inspiration in high school. I played that course before. It should be just another great test for me.”
But Papp also offered advice to players in Augusta this year. “Just enjoy every moment because that tournament was very special to be a part of. I would say to just enjoy the opportunity,” she said. “Getting to play Augusta National is a dream come true for everyone.”
Ruffels, a University of Southern California junior who’s the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, did not play at Augusta last year but hopes to do so in the future, she told The Sydney Morning Herald, which reported on her choice in January. And Ye, the reigning U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, played at Augusta last year, missing the 36-hole cut. (The first two rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur are contested at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Ga., with the top 30 players advancing to the final round at Augusta National. All 72 competitors are permitted to play a practice round at Augusta National the day before the final round.)
With Augusta National Golf Club seemingly having locked in its women’s amateur to conclude the Saturday before the Masters Tournament, questions have arisen about the feasibility of the ANA Inspiration shifting its dates to avoid a conflict. Television commitments and the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which takes place over the two weekends following the ANA Inspiration in the California desert, have been cited as obstacles to a move.
Unless circumstances change, it appears the game’s best women amateurs will continue to face an unenviable choice.
Olivia Mehaffey, who played in the 2019 Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, won’t be there this year. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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