AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | For her 15th birthday last week, Gianna Clemente’s mother surprised her with the most awesome present a teenage girl could dream about — Taylor Swift tickets for her upcoming show in Tampa, Florida.
There aren’t many things more precious to a “Swiftie.” Clemente, however, could think of one thing better — a starting time at Augusta National Golf Club.
“Not even close,” the youngest competitor to ever make the 36-hole cut in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur said when asked which opportunity she’s more excited about.
When Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley abruptly created the ANWA in 2019, he opened the gates to the world’s most famous exclusive club to aspirations of an entire gender of dreamers. The ANWA immediately vaulted to a level of esteem on par with the top amateur events in the world. And the biggest perk is getting to play the home course of the Masters Tournament on the eve of the year’s first major championship.
Not everyone qualifies to compete in the final round at Augusta National on Saturday. They all, however, get to play a practice round on the venerable course on Friday. And this particular Friday was a chamber-of-commerce perfect 73 degrees and sunny.
“Just playing in general… I think that would be a very common answer for a first-year player,” said Clemente, who competed in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National as an 8-year-old. “I’m just very excited to play. Hopefully I’ll make the cut and get to be able to play it in competition. That would be the end goal.”
“If I had missed the cut it would be just for fun, and now I actually have to pay attention to what the caddie is saying and write down notes and all that stuff.” – Gianna Clemente
Clemente handily reached that end goal when she made five birdies on her last 10 holes in Thursday’s second round at Champions Retreat Golf Club to not only qualify for the final round but slip into the top 10. All that did was add an extra level of preparation mode when she played her practice round on Friday.
“If I had missed the cut it would be just for fun, and now I actually have to pay attention to what the caddie is saying and write down notes and all that stuff,” Clemente said. “Yeah, it’s definitely more prep, but that’s a good thing. I would rather have it that way.”
The way the ANWA is presented leads to some complicated emotions regarding its main attraction — the opportunity to play Augusta National. Friday’s practice round is wedged between the first two competition days at nearby Champions Retreat and the final round at ANGC on Saturday.
Only the top 30 competitors (and for the first time this year, anyone tied 30th or better) qualify to compete in the final round. That means as many as 42 of the 72 ANWA participants only enjoy a casual round of golf at the home of the Masters Tournament. That might be fine for 99 percent of golfers in the world, but it’s not really what golfers at this level of the game are satisfied with.
Nobody understands that better than current LPGA rookie Alexa Pano.
“I mean, ever since I was a little girl I’d always dreamed of playing and competing on Augusta National,” Pano said. “When I was 5 years old and I barely knew what I was talking about, I was saying that.”
This generation of young women is lucky enough to have been born in an era when that became possible. Three times, Pano competed in the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National, winning her age group twice; she claimed the 10-11 division in 2016 and the 12-13 group in 2017. Then Pano returned to compete in the first three editions of the ANWA, missing the cut her first two tries. She was determined to do more than just play a casual practice round on the big course in her last appearance in 2021 before turning professional at age 17.
“To be honest with you, that day for me was very bittersweet because I had just missed the cut by one,” Pano said of her first practice round in the inaugural 2019 ANWA. “And as much of a thrill and a privilege it was to get to play Augusta National, the competitor in me was still very upset. And it was the same thing for the second year, maybe even worse the second year. But that’s another big reason as to why I stayed amateur five extra weeks to play in the (2022) ANWA because there was just no way I could turn professional without playing the practice round and the tournament round in a good mood and get to experience Augusta National the final day.”
If anyone was unhappy with their experience on Friday, it didn’t show. Most of the competitors head off the first and 10th tees with college teammates or junior friends. Japan’s Yuna Araki made the cut and played with fellow Japanese competitor Miku Ueta, who didn’t qualify. The friends walked off the first tee and all the way up the hill of the first fairway with their arms wrapped tightly around each other’s shoulders as if they couldn’t believe where they were and what they were doing.
They all got to soak in what Emilia Migliaccio, who advanced to Saturday’s final day, calls Augusta’s “standard level of pristine” on a course not yet engulfed by patrons. It was the calm before the storm — both figurative and literal this year, as a grim Saturday forecast forced final round ANWA starting times to get pushed forward and off split tees to try to beat the rain.
“It’s incredible,” said Migliaccio, who played her fourth ANWA practice round with former Wake Forest mates Rachel Kuehn and Carolina Lopez-Chacarra. “I don’t really get starstruck when I meet people, but the feeling of playing this golf course, I get starstruck. It’s hard to focus when I’m over a shot, and I can think back to when I was watching on TV and just seeing people hit shots.
“It’s a private round for all of us, and they just put on an incredible show here at ANWA, and we’re really lucky to be here and really happy.”
Scotland’s Hannah Darling, who plays collegiately just up the road at the University of South Carolina, missed the cut by one shot. But you wouldn’t find her pouting about her fate.
“We just want to go have fun… it’s such a special experience,” said Darling, a sophomore on the Gamecocks women’s golf team. “Being able to play Augusta on Friday when no one else is there is surreal. You do not get a day like that ever. That regardless is going to be a moment.”
A moment in the sun. Judging from the constant stream of smiles by competitors walking between the course and the clubhouse, a good time was had by all.
Top: Gianna Clemente just turned 15, and what better way to celebrate than to qualify for the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Open. Photo: Augusta National Golf Club.
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