AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Olivia Mehaffey is not supposed to be here. In her ideal virus-free world, the 23-year-old from Banbridge, Northern Ireland, would be competing in the LPGA’s first major championship of the season this weekend as a professional rookie. It was all mapped out before COVID-19 happened.
Instead, Mehaffey finds herself in the thick of contention to win the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on Saturday, sitting just one shot behind co-leaders Rose Zhang of California and Ingrid Lindblad of Sweden with the chance of a lifetime riding on 18 holes at the home of the Masters.
“I didn’t think I’d have this opportunity again, so I feel very lucky,” Mehaffey said Thursday after shooting the lowest round of the week at Champions Retreat to put herself in the penultimate pairing for Saturday’s final round. “Obviously, I turned the exemption down (last year), and to get back here, it’s amazing.”
Mahaffey competed in the inaugural event in 2019, reaching the final round at Augusta National and leaving with a tie for 23rd. She qualified again in 2020, but withdrew her name to accept one of the amateur invitations to the ANA Inspiration – the LPGA major played across the country in California the same week as the ANWA.
When the world shut down for the pandemic and the ANWA was cancelled, so too were all of Mehaffey’s grand plans. The ANA was postponed and played in September, and Mehaffey made the cut finishing T74. But with no LPGA Q -school in 2020, she went back for a fifth season at Arizona State and remained in the amateur pool to qualify again for another ANWA.
“I think, even if I had the choice, this would have been my choice,” she said of the way things worked out. “I got to experience the ANA and that was amazing, but this tournament is so special. It’s definitely great to be back and to be part of it.”
“I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been. “I didn’t think I would be, but a professional event and in the lead … that was definitely the most nervous I’ve felt.” – Olivia Mehaffey
Ranked 18th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Mehaffey doesn’t quite have the name recognition of world No. 1 Zhang, but she offers the most threatening form to the current teenage co-leader. Two weeks ago, Mehaffey held the 36-hole lead in a professional Symetra Tour event but finished sixth. Zhang sailed past her with a pair of 66s on the weekend to finish runner-up.
“I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” said Mehaffey. “I didn’t think I would be, but a professional event and in the lead … that was definitely the most nervous I’ve felt. I think that experience will be really good coming into this week being in contention again.”
Nerves, as Mehaffey says, are a good thing. They show she cares. And nerves are never more on display than at Augusta National with a global television audience tuning in and a piece of history on the line.
“It’s Augusta National – we’re on this stage right now that the whole world’s watching, and there’s going to be more pressure than I’m sure anybody’s ever felt,” said Mehaffey. “I think it’s obviously going to be difficult. You have to kind of go in prepared for that. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s definitely nice to be in contention. That’s why we’re all here. We want to compete. We want to win. We want to show the world what women golfers are capable of, and I think that’s the exciting thing.”
Mehaffey is one of nine players – including Zhang – to reach the finals at Augusta National a second time. The Northern Irishwoman, however, made the most veteran move of the week by setting up in advance to have Augusta National caddie Brian McKinley carry her bag this week. McKinley deftly guided Jennifer Kupcho to a final-round 67 and victory in the inaugural ANWA.
“I think experience this week is huge – knowing how the event works, knowing the formalities, knowing where you go, knowing what you can do, knowing the courses,” said Mehaffey. “I think it’s one of those courses, the more you play, the better. That’s why I’m very grateful this year I have an Augusta National caddie, Brian. He’s great. He caddied for Jennifer in the final round last year. To utilize him out there, I think is going to be huge.”
McKinley helped steer Mehaffey to an even-par start in rounds of 75-69 at Champions Retreat. Starting the second round just tied for 28th yet only five shots off the lead, Mehaffey had a wild ride around the easier Island front nine designed by Arnold Palmer, not making her first par until the ninth hole with five birdies and three bogeys at the start. She settled down on the more difficult Bluff back nine designed by Jack Nicklaus, adding a birdie on 11 and eight pars en route to the only sub-70 score at Champions Retreat.
“I think the hardest thing about this tournament is you can feel like you’re in contention, but you also feel you’re so close to the cut line,” she said. “I think that’s the hardest battle out there. You know a couple of mistakes, especially how difficult it’s playing, you can drop down so fast, but then you can also move up quite quickly, too. I was telling myself, don’t be close to the cut line. I didn’t want to wait around for a playoff.”
That volatility has been indicative of her recent play post-pandemic. After spending months during lockdown at home with her family in Northern Ireland, she returned to the States for the ANA in September and stayed through the U.S. Women’s Open in December. During that stretch, she changed swing coaches and started working with Jorge Parada, an LPGA coach and director of golf at Liberty National.
“I think that time was crucial for me,” she said. “I don’t think if I didn’t have that time we could’ve gone into the changes as much in depth. That was huge and probably the best time for me.”
A recent addition to her arsenal is a new blade putter that she immediately felt comfortable with after using a mallet putter her entire life. As someone who speaks as if she’s on the clock, she’s working on being more patient with herself through the ups and downs as she hones in on more consistency.
“It’s one of those games at the minute – you just don’t know what it’s going to be tomorrow,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easy, and you feel like you’re kind of just on autopilot. It’s not necessarily like that right now, but I know I can go low.”
Saturday would be a good day to go low. Regardless, she is in a great place where she never expected to be again, with new plans to turn professional sometime this summer after the collegiate season. While admittedly she came in with higher expectations for her second shot at Augusta National, she’s profoundly grateful for the opportunity and whatever happens Saturday happens.
“I’ve been playing decent in the past few weeks, so it’s definitely there, but I think I’ve done a good job of just enjoying the week and really taking it all in,” she said. “It’s probably one of my last amateur events, and I want to enjoy it as much as possible. We’re so lucky to get this opportunity, and there’s so many players I know that wish they would have it. I think yes (to higher expectations), but park it and leave it and just have fun and really enjoy the week.”
Still, she can’t help but daydream what it might be like to play through Amen Corner with a championship on the line and the chance to draft her own piece of Augusta National lore.
“It would be incredible, of course,” she said. “There’s a lot of golf to be played before then, and obviously anything can happen out there. You see what Maria (Fassi) and Jennifer (Kupcho) did two years ago. It was incredible, and it really shook the golf world. I think that’s something that we have the ability to do this week again, and that would be very special to do.”
Top: Olivia Mehaffey dreams of playing Augusta National with a championship on the line. (All photos courtesy of Augusta National Women’s Amateur)
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