Before Sarah LeBrun Ingram stepped aside from competitive golf in 1996, her otherworldly amateur career couldn’t be stopped.
Ingram, a former All-American at Duke University, won just about everything you could in the women’s amateur game during the late 1980s and early ’90s. She was the first woman to capture two consecutive U.S. Women’s Mid-Ams, including three victories in four years, which sent her to represent the American side at three straight Curtis Cups and back-to-back U.S. Women’s World Amateurs. A runner-up finish at the 1993 U.S. Women’s Amateur and a low-amateur finish at the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open — she accomplished the latter while seven months pregnant — not only made her the top-ranked amateur in the women’s game according to multiple publications (this was more than two decades before the creation of the World Amateur Golf Ranking) but it also put her in an exclusive and pioneering category of phenomenal female golfers who eschewed the pro game. In her 20s alone, the Nashville resident had done enough to later be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
But sometimes the most imaginative and skillful players have an insatiable desire to be more than a golfer. It happened to Lorena Ochoa near the end of her 20s. It happened to Ingram, too. Spurred by a horrid case of rheumatoid arthritis and the desire to raise a family while getting to work on new career projects, Ingram moved on from the game.
“Over the last 22 years, I might play a few times here and there. … Now I’ve really enjoyed getting better and actually being happy with the improvements.” – Sarah Ingram
“I think I was ready to take a break from golf, but I was helped in making that decision because I couldn’t bend four of my fingers,” Ingram said. “I knew I hadn’t left anything on the table in my golf career. And I really wanted to do for my children what my parents did for me, which was to be there for whatever their interests were.”
After finding medication that brought her health back to normal, Ingram rode horses competitively and immersed herself in volunteer work with Saddle Up!, a therapeutic horseback riding program that provides recreational activities to children and youth with disabilities. Parenthood, horses, philanthropy and doubles tennis pushed golf almost completely off her radar. She only played once or twice a year. That was until 2018 when the U.S. Women’s Amateur came to her home course, the Golf Club of Tennessee where her husband, David, is the president and she served as the co-chair of the tournament working with the USGA in player services.
Ingram spent 22 years apart from golf. Being back in the arena of the amateur game led her to want more. She started working on her game and then jumped back into competition, making it all the way to the round of 16 at the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.
Prior to that event, the last time Ingram competed in match play she carried two persimmon woods.
“I didn’t embarrass myself,” Ingram said, noting that she recently picked up her first win in more than two decades at the 2020 Tennessee Women’s Senior Amateur. “Over the last 22 years, I might play a few times here and there. But it would be frustrating because I thought I was supposed to be good and other people wanted me to be good. Now I’ve really enjoyed getting better and actually being happy with the improvements.”
Amidst her revival in the game, Ingram was “shocked and surprised” to be asked to captain what originally was the 2020 U.S. Curtis Cup team, now the 2021 team. Although Ingram possesses a prolific playing résumé and went 2-1 in singles during her Curtis Cup days, her time away made her unsure whether captaining a squad of young women would be the right fit.
“I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do,” Ingram said. “I was overwhelmed for a while, just knowing that I had to learn the players and learn the game, which has changed so much since I played. I also have two sons, so I think one of my first worries with leading the team was that I just hadn’t dealt with young girls.”
Through traveling to the U.S. Women’s Amateur and other prominent events, Ingram has quickly formed close relationships with many of the candidates to make her team. She laughs at how drastically the game has changed with players utilizing current technology to have much higher ball flights while not needing to work the ball both ways like she used to practice for hours on end. But some old-school mentality is going to be necessary next August when the matches are played at Conwy Caernarvonshire Golf Club on the blustery north shores of Wales. During the last practice session, Ingram had the team use three clubs to stoke their creativity and embrace lower-trajectory shots.
“When we go over to Conwy, it’s going to be a different game than a lot of these players have ever seen. … You have to hit a lot of shots 20 yards short of the green and run it up there. The girls are so darn good at taking out their sand wedge and using it from everywhere around the green, but they may need to have some other shots.” – Sarah Ingram
“We used to do that at Duke my freshman and sophomore year for fun,” Ingram said. “We had a reunion right before the practice session last year and we did it again with our old college teammates, so I thought it would be something fun to throw at the girls and see what they do when they don’t have the club they want.
“When we go over to Conwy, it’s going to be a different game than a lot of these players have ever seen. This course in particular is very linksy with a lot of blind shots. You have to hit a lot of shots 20 yards short of the green and run it up there. The girls are so darn good at taking out their sand wedge and using it from everywhere around the green, but they may need to have some other shots.”
On the topic of the impending practice session which will take place later this month at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, Florida, Ingram is using the opportunity to further bond with 12 of the hopefuls to make the eight-player squad. Players such as world No. 1 Rose Zhang, Wake Forest’s Emilia Migliaccio and Texas’ Kaitlyn Papp are virtual locks to be on the squad, but the other five slots are far more unsettled. Auburn’s Megan Schofill and Wake Forest’s Rachel Kuehn didn’t participate in the 2019 practice session but enjoyed stellar performances in 2020, making them possible favorites to fill one of the likely five open spots.
One glaring absence to the practice roster was world No. 67 Alexa Pano, the uber-talented 16-year-old out of Lake Worth, Florida, who made the cut in last year’s LPGA Tour event in Arkansas and is still seen by many as one of the top five American women amateurs. Pano reached No. 19 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking a year ago but was hurt by the new ranking system which devalues junior tournaments and raises the value of collegiate events. The top-ranked Zhang is the only non-college player on the practice session, so Pano may need high finishes in professional or amateur events to grab the committee’s attention.
Ingram did not comment on specific players and Pano declined comment, although Ingram said events such as the Augusta National Women’s Amateur or match play tournaments will be opportunities for players to make statements.
Regardless of who makes the team, winning on foreign soil will be a challenge. Although the U.S. has won nine of the past 11 Curtis Cups, the home side has won the last five matches with Great Britain & Ireland taking victories at Ireland’s Dun Laoghaire Golf Club in 2016 and Scotland’s Nairn Golf Club in 2012.
The last time the U.S. won away from home was in 2008 at St. Andrews. For some perspective, Stacy Lewis was on that team.
Ingram wants to snap a drought as well, as the U.S. did not win any of the three Curtis Cups she played in during the 90s.
“Watching the red, white and blue flag rise and getting to represent your country was always my biggest goal in golf,” Ingram said. “It would be a dream to finally win that Curtis Cup.”
Top photo: Simon Dale, Copyright USGA
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