EVANS, GEORGIA | The Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, by its very inaugural nature, felt like the beginning of something big. The long-delayed second installment this week feels more like the end of something – something that in its own weird way is just as big.
The 82 young women competing at Champions Retreat in Wednesday’s first round weren’t chasing the same kind of history that Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi did two years ago. There’s only one opportunity to be the first at something, to set the tone for an event that broke boundaries in a place once symbolic of exclusion.
What these women are doing this week is chasing normality – both for elite amateur women’s golf and for life. The emotions on display Wednesday weren’t as much about the awe at being pioneers or the frustrations of making a bogey. COVID-19 protocols still rule the day, but everywhere you turned it couldn’t mask the joy and appreciation everyone had for being here. For the first time in 13 months since the whole world changed, these women gathered with friends and family for something that represented simple pleasure.
The 2021 ANWA feels like the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a long year for everyone, but especially for some of these women trapped in a netherworld by the pandemic – some of them literally an ocean away from family they haven’t seen in 15 months.
Wake Forest University senior Siyun “Swing” Liu had plans to finish school and turn professional last spring before her options disappeared. She couldn’t even see her family in locked-down Shanghai, China – until last week when her father waved his arms excitedly running through the airport to hug his daughter for the first time since January 2020.
Liu’s emotions are wide-ranging.
“I can’t even put into words like how excited I am,” she said. “I grew up in China, and my family just have this tradition of like staying up all night, like to watch the Masters. Like even my mom who doesn’t play golf at all. So it’s just super cool for me to have this opportunity to play at two amazing courses and actually set my feet on like Augusta National and just experience it myself.
“Also because of COVID, I have been away from home for like 14 and a half months, and my dad just got here last week to caddie for me. So I’m just so grateful to see my family, as well, because of this. There’s just so much to it, and I can’t even like express how grateful I am for this opportunity on so many different levels.”
After a nightmare year, dreams are being fulfilled again.
“It’s a dream that every kid has growing up, even if you’re not a golfer,” said Brooke Matthews, who watched Arkansas teammate Fassi contend in 2019, and showed up and eagled her first hole Wednesday. “So just soaking in every single moment of it, I’m so excited.”
Everybody’s motivations for competing this week are different. Some have the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Others are just thrilled to be here.
Pauline Roussin-Bouchard was jacked to be here last April as a top-five amateur in the world riding a wave of success at the University of South Carolina. Her hopes were put on hold.
“It was pretty hard because everything got canceled at the same time, so we went from having a full season and a lot of goals and momentum and then suddenly like nothing,” said Roussin-Bouchard, who shot 75 in the opening round. “I had to go back to France and lock down for two months in my house. So I was sad, but at the same time, you need to see the bright side of it, spend some time with my family and get out of it even stronger.”
Two years ago, Alexa Melton injured her right wrist preparing to play and had to withdraw the week before the inaugural. She could only bear to watch some of the final round at Augusta National on TV because it hurt to see what she was missing.
Wednesday morning, Melton got to hit the first official tee shot of the 2021 ANWA – off the cart path but with a good enough bounce to make par. She was 2 under at the turn before six bogeys on the back nine scuttled her round but not her mood.
“I have never been more nervous in my life. My heart was racing,” the University of Southern California player said of the opening shot. “But I couldn’t stop smiling. I knew there were so many cameras. I tried not to look at them. … The back nine is a little harder than the front; my scorecard can vouch for that.”
Abbey Carlson qualified to compete in 2020 before the tournament was canceled and she graduated from Vanderbilt and accepted a job as an engineer for Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama. She put away her golf clubs and went to work before her exemption was extended and she tried to cobble together a semblance of a game between shifts.
“It’s been a year for the record books, that’s for sure, in more ways than one, and I think anyone across the world can say that,” she said of a year that included only one golf tournament last June. “There’s not enough hours in a day, not enough days on the weekend, that’s for sure and then you throw some short days getting off at 4:30 and suddenly it’s dark out and it’s like my plans to go to the range suddenly are gone. It’s definitely been difficult.”
Carlson didn’t care, even if a 78 in the first round makes it unlikely she’ll make the cut for Saturday. Just being here doing something that brings joy is all that mattered.
“I told my boss as soon as the invite came out, ‘I’ll be gone this week,’ ” she said. “It was kind of like I’ll-be-gone-I’m-not-really-asking-for-permission type of thing.”
The ANWA was an inspirational beacon for some in a year of darkness.
Megha Ganne, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, qualified a record four times for the Drive, Chip & Putt finals at Augusta National, finishing runner-up her last chance in 2019 at age 15. Gutted that she fell short and aged out, she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to find LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez.
“Well, you can always play the ANWA next year,” Lopez told her.
Ganne went from dejected to energized. A year later she did in fact qualify for the 2020 ANWA and has had a year more to prepare for her fifth chance to compete at Augusta National.
“At the time it just seemed so farfetched; I just never would’ve expected to make that jump,” said Ganne, who shot 77 Wednesday. “It all came very quickly.”
Ana Peláez Triviño of Spain drove over from the University of South Carolina to watch the last round at Augusta National from outside the ropes in 2019, supporting countrywoman Marta Perez. It lit a spark in her.
“I told myself, I really want to be within the ropes,” said Peláez Triviño, who shot 1-under 71 to sit tied for second. “I really want to play this tournament. Last year, I didn’t qualify but then COVID happened. I like to think that everything happens for a reason and I’m just glad I didn’t turn professional and I’m enjoying this experience this year.”
That’s exactly what Masters chairman Fred Ridley had in mind when he created the Augusta National Women’s Amateur after taking the club’s helm. In short order, what was a novel idea has become an aspirational moment on the calendar. Its influence survived the pandemic.
“I think this tournament has been such a turning point for women’s golf,” said Emilia Migliaccio of Wake Forest. “So many people who talk to me, even, you know, people at Wake, athletes who don’t really follow golf, they know about the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Even at my home golf club and college golf now that the NCAA is being aired, I find more people are coming to me telling me that they are watching more women’s golf and more college golf, and it’s awesome.”
Ultimately, these women are here more than for the experience. They’re here to compete for something that matters. And that’s what feels the most normal of all.
Peláez Triviño put it best when asked to describe her emotions this week.
“Some part of me feels extremely grateful to have the opportunity to be here,” she said, “and at the same time, I don’t want to let the emotion of being here and like, just feeling like, you know, you’re so lucky, to not let me do my best or to feel just comfortable being here.
“I’m here, and I’m enjoying it. Now, when I play on the course, I’m a player. And I want to win.”
So normal, which is so cool.
Top: Ana Peláez Triviño of Spain plays from the No. 3 tee during Round 1. (All photos courtesy of Augusta National Women’s Amateur)
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