It was all kind of a blur, that disjointed feeling you get when maybe you skipped a step along the way and, all of a sudden, you’re much farther down the road and everything around you seems new and different.
After one magical Saturday last April forged a new star, 16-year-old Anna Davis launched herself on a trajectory she always expected would come only after she filled in all the requisite blanks along the projected path from junior amateur to professional golfer. She had no idea that a victory in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur would immediately open so many doors she hadn’t even knocked on yet.
“That’s insane. I did not know that,” was Davis’ sincere response when she was asked in her post-victory press conference about her exemption into last summer’s U.S. Women’s Open. “I was looking forward to a qualifier soon, but that’s incredible.”
She didn’t know the half of it. Davis’ ANWA win last spring sent her playing in seven professional starts (including three majors) in four countries over the course of one whirlwind summer. Despite her youth and inexperience, Davis made the cut in five of those pro events (including the Amundi Evian Championship) and displayed a maturity that belied her age.
“Oh my gosh,” said Davis, thinking back to the summer of 2022. “I mean, after winning ANWA and getting all the emails and the phone calls and stuff like that about going to tour events. Just having that experience at 16 years old, basically having like a whole summer just on tour was pretty cool.”
If you think Davis — a high school junior from the San Diego suburb of Spring Valley — was satisfied just playing weekends against the best women’s golfers in the world, think again. Finishing 50- or 60-something isn’t exactly what a teenager longs for.
“I think in the moment of those few months that I was playing in those events, I was disappointed with my finishes because I wasn’t playing that well,” Davis said. “Then again, I was 16 playing in tour events, so looking back on it now, I would say that was pretty good. In my head I could have done better.”
It proved, however, to be an effective learning experience.
“She definitely isn’t afraid of anybody… I would not see her getting intimidated by anybody, college or professional level. And so it really didn’t surprise me that she was able to win.” – Alexa Pano
“I think what it mostly told me is that golf is just so mental,” she said. “Just the mental aspects and having to go out there every week and try to make the cut for one thing is super hard. I mean, I would go out there and have a shot that I could normally hit on any day and I’d be standing over it like, ‘Oh my God, this is so scary.’ I think that’s kind of what I learned.”
Those experiences came because Davis took the golf world by storm with her final-round 3-under 69 at Augusta National, rallying from two shots down to start the day to beat a leaderboard filled with established collegiate stars.
“I think the only reason people didn’t know about her was because she was a junior,” said Alexa Pano, one of Davis’ closest friends. “But ever since I’ve known her, she’s had a great game and she’s a really hard worker. She definitely isn’t afraid of anybody… I would not see her getting intimidated by anybody, college or professional level. And so it really didn’t surprise me that she was able to win.”
As a relative unknown, Davis stood out for so many reasons — her smooth left-handed game; her preternatural maturity juxtaposed with an effervescent youthful innocence; and, of course, her bucket hat that she just put on because she felt like it that day.
“Yeah, it was super funny,” she said of the sudden celebrity status her victory generated. “I just remember looking at all the media after and everybody being obsessed with how young I was and the bucket hat and me being left-handed… just like all sorts of things that I didn’t think anybody would ever notice. The media after was crazy and just talking about certain things. The bucket hat comes up a lot.”
Let’s start with the bucket hat. It’s not some kind of fashion statement Davis was trying to make. It was hot in Louisville once at a tournament and her dad asked her to wear one to keep from getting sunburned. She only wore it in that final round at Augusta last year, but when her entourage of family and friends donned similar chapeau’s from the Augusta National merchandise shop, it garnered outsized attention.
Her use of a bucket hat is situational, not stylish. But it might appear once again at this year’s ANWA.
“I don’t really wear it in the winter; it’s more of a spring thing,” she said.
“It kind of depends on my mood and it depends on the weather. So we’ll see.”
Her southpaw swing is another interesting wrinkle, because Davis isn’t really left-handed.
“When I was little I did everything left-handed and then all of a sudden I switched,” she said. “I started doing everything right-handed but I kept hitting the ball left-handed. That was right around the time my parents were about to buy me golf clubs and they were like, ‘Uh, so is she left-handed or right-handed?’ I started hitting the ball left-handed and so that’s kind of all I’ve ever done. Everything else is right-handed. I kick with my left foot but that’s about it.”
Davis’ most endearing quality, however, is her personality. She can wow everyone with the composure she displays on the golf course, but she disarms everyone with her charm. She’s engaging and personable and has something to say when asked – even if her answer is to admit she never really watched the Masters Tournament before winning at Augusta and didn’t know too much about Bobby Jones other than that she and her twin brother, Billy, share the same St. Patrick’s Day birthday (March 17) with Jones.
Or to be critical of an iconic Masters staple.
“I know the pimento cheese thing is a really big thing, but I just can’t get over how gross it is,” she said.
Not every young athlete or golfer – male or female – has that knack for comfortable charisma.
“I think just from experience and having to be very independent at an early age,” she said of her composure derived from traveling the junior circuit. “I think that’s helped a lot.”
Put the whole package together and Davis has a certain “it” factor that makes her stand out in the crowd.
“She’s really become a natural at it and everyone loves her personality just as much as I do,” said Pano, who grew up in the spotlight herself since being featured in the 2013 documentary film, “The Short Game.”
“It’s been so fun to watch, seeing how she’s grown, even just in front of cameras. … Going back to Augusta, she’s going to be in the biggest spotlight ever. So I know she’ll take it on really well.”
Davis will be the first ANWA champion to return to defend her title, and it will create a very different experience for her this time around. Even though she shared the first-round lead in the 2022 tournament, Davis flew under the radar. Starting the final round just two back on a tightly bunched leaderboard, she quietly lingered until she birdied Nos. 9, 12 and 13 at Augusta National to move squarely into the mix.
“I was just trying to stay consistent and not make any dumb mistakes or anything like that,” she said.
When LSU teammates Ingrid Lindblad and Latanna Stone faltered at the finish, Davis never wavered and won by a shot.
“My main goal is to play golf all over the world and see different things and meet new people. I think it probably had an impact because now I think like, ‘Yeah, I just want to do that.’ I just want to go straight to the tour now. It was hard to decide to go to college after like seven (pro) events.” – Anna Davis
“That was basically the first big amateur event I had played in,” Davis said of her ANWA debut. “I hadn’t played in a U.S. (Women’s) Am or a North & South (Women’s) Amateur or anything like that before it, so I think I kind of downplayed it a lot just because I knew I was the underdog.
“I think it definitely could have been an advantage – not really knowing how big of a deal it was. Or not really realizing it until after I’d won it. I didn’t think so much about it. I was just playing golf like any other day.”
Oddly, her first major amateur debut ended up keeping her from competing in more. With all the professional exemptions thrown her way, Davis missed out on the summer amateur circuit. She would like to rectify that this year.
“I mean, I definitely want to go back and play a bunch of amateur events,” she said. “I’ve kind of skipped that entire part of my golf career so far. I just jumped straight from junior events to pro events, so I definitely kind of missed that last summer — not being able to play in those events. But I think this summer that’s kind of the goal to just go and compete against the best amateurs, for sure.”
The whole pro experience, however, accelerated her enthusiasm for reaching the LPGA.
“For as long as I can remember, I know I wanted to be a professional golfer,” Davis said. “So I think being able to see what tour life is like was kind of a huge deal. Because I know a lot of really good amateurs. The reason they don’t go pro is because they don’t really enjoy tour life.
“My main goal is to play golf all over the world and see different things and meet new people. I think it probably had an impact because now I think like, ‘Yeah, I just want to do that.’ I just want to go straight to the tour now. It was hard to decide to go to college after like seven (pro) events.”
Davis, however, is “pretty set” on going to college and committed to start early at Auburn next year.
“I was trying to balance the pros and cons of each and at the end of the day I decided I needed more experience in different situations, you know different kinds of pressure situations,” she said. “I’ve never really had that before where I have to win, or I have to make a putt to win, or I have to come back and win. Stuff like that made me decide that I needed more experience in the amateur side of golf. And you know, have, like, a life for a few years outside of golf.”
While Pano made the decision to jump straight into the professional realm at age 17 instead of taking the college route, she respects Davis doing it her own way after having similar opportunities presented.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to turn professional after competing in professional events as an amateur and so I think it’s a really great thing that she got to experience that,” Pano said. “Honestly, I’m so glad that she’s happy with her decision to commit to Auburn. I was just really supportive of whatever she wanted to do, whether she wanted to turn professional or go to college. I just really wanted her to be happy.”
With an NIL deal already with Titleist taking some financial pressures off and allowing her to explore college more freely, Davis liked what she found at Auburn after Billy was so enthusiastic about going there to play for the Tigers’ men’s golf team.
“He really basically liked everything about it, so I decided to start talking to them and then I went on a visit,” she said. “I loved everything about it — just the town, the people, the atmosphere… everything is so good.”
Davis returns to Augusta in more control of her game than she was a year ago when she came in hot off runner-up finishes in the Junior Orange Bowl and ANNIKA Invitational and a third at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. She’s already won both the Junior Orange Bowl and Junior Invitational this year and hopes the familiar run-up will yield similar results in her ANWA title defense.
“Before I played ANWA, I had some really good finishes and so there was good momentum going into that week and my golf game was in really good shape before that week,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the same position.”
Davis ranks No. 8 on the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The 2023 ANWA field includes nine of the top 10 players, including No. 1 Rose Zhang, last year’s runner-ups Lindblad (WAGR No. 2) and Stone, as well as 2021 ANWA winner Tsubasa Kajitani of Japan, who skipped the event last year.
But Davis has one small advantage on the field. After winning at nearby Sage Valley, she stayed a few extra days in a cabin at Champions Retreat and got to play a few extra practice rounds a week early on the course that plays host to the first two rounds.
“It would be nice to be in contention again, that’d be super cool,” Davis said of her goals this time. “But I think mainly it’s to have fun and just enjoy your experience. I mean, not everybody gets to play Champions Retreat and not everybody gets to play Augusta National. So I think you really just have to enjoy yourself when you’re there and make the most of the experience.”
Top photo: Courtesy Augusta National.
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