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Courtesy: Tim Cowie
Courtesy: Johnny Moore, GoDuke The Magazine
Release: 04/23/2019
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By Johnny Moore, GoDuke the Magazine

Former Blue Devil golfer and longtime Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman may have put it best when asked about the Augusta Women’s National Amateur. “Memorable” was her first thought and that’s exactly what it was.

For the first time in the history of one of the most revered golf courses in the world, women competed for a title. Augusta National Golf Club, the famed sight of the Masters, hosted the Augusta National Women’s Amateur the first weekend in April and the Duke women’s golf team was well represented four current players plus one future Blue Devil in the field.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for any amateur to get to play Augusta and a chance for members of our team to play in a very important event,” said Duke head coach Dan Brooks, now in his 35th year with the Blue Devils. “This is a very prestigious event where you will be playing against the best in the world — a very strong field that will be a great test for our players heading into the ACC and NCAA tournaments.”

Blue Devils invited to play included senior Virginia Elena Carta from Udine, Italy; junior Ana Belac from Portoroz, Slovenia; sophomore Jaravee Boonchant from Bangkok, Thailand; freshman Gina Kim from Chapel Hill; and incoming freshman Erica Shepherd from Greenwood, Ind.

The event, which was announced last year by chairman Fred Ridley at his annual press conference at the Masters, was established to inspire greater interest and participation in the women’s game by creating a new and exciting pathway for these players to fulfill their dreams.

It placed women’s amateur and collegiate golf at a new level, with exposure to the world through Golf Channel during the week and NBC with their live broadcast on Saturday. Even more important was the exposure to all the young girls who were able to experience Augusta National with their parents and watch some of the best women in the sport play.

The crowds were incredible as patrons roamed the grounds of Augusta National on a beautiful Saturday in April. Normally, the cost of entrance to these grounds for the Masters is exclusive to those who can afford big-ticket items or have the right connections. On Saturday at the ANWA, there were father-daughter tandems and families who may never get the opportunity to visit the Masters, out enjoying the opportunity to see women’s golf on one of the sports most esteemed courses.

Invitations were provided to the winners of the top women’s amateur events in the world, along with the top 30 players from the USA who are not otherwise qualified, based on the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking at the end of the 2018 calendar year. Any remaining positions were filled by invitation of the ANWA Championship Committee.

In other words, the best of the best women’s amateur golfers in the world gathered in Augusta, Georgia.

For Carta this was another milestone in an incredible amateur career — with NCAA individual champion, U.S. Amateur finalist and U.S. Open participant at the top of the honor roll.

“I’ve been fortunate to have played in a lot of big events and it is so nice to be a part of this event for the first time,” she said.

The players played their first two rounds at Champion Retreat on Wednesday and Thursday, and then had a practice round at Augusta National on Friday, prior to the top 30 playing the final round on the famed course on Saturday.

“When I first heard the news, I was very excited to get to play at Augusta,” said Kim. “It was a dream to get to play at such a prestigious place. I always watched the Masters on television and really look forward to getting the opportunity to play the course.”

Kim is the only Blue Devil with any on-site familiarity with Augusta National. In 2015 she participated in the finals of the National Drive, Chip and Putt competition held at Augusta National Golf Club.

“We putted on the 18th green from the same spot that Phil Mickleson made his putt to win the Masters,” said Kim. “I couldn’t believe how fast the putt was and how far it rolled past the hole.”

Belac was also excited to be playing at Augusta. “It is interesting that we are the first generation of females to get to play Augusta in competition,” she explained. “That, combined with an outstanding field, makes this event very special.”

Following the first two rounds at Champions Retreat only Boonchant and Shepherd qualified to play on Saturday at Augusta National.

Boonchant was even par both days and finished in eighth place, clearly in the mix for the final round on Saturday. For Shepherd, making it to Augusta National was a little tighter.

Shepherd is one of the more interesting stories that came out of the event.

When she was in the fifth grade, Shepherd wrote a bucket list that reflected goals in her life. Two of those goals were to attend Duke University and be the first woman to play in the Masters.

Her goal of attending Duke University is a reality, as she will become a student and member of the Blue Devil golf team in the fall.

“I’ve been wearing Duke stuff since I was two years old, when there was a picture taken of me in a Duke cheerleading uniform,” she explained. “Duke is one of the best golf programs in the history of golf and to be a part of that and next year to be on a Duke team that has some of the best players in the world is very exciting.”

The roots go even deeper as her full name is Erica Leigh Shepherd, being named for former Duke All-America golfer Leigh Ann Hardin, who helped Duke to 33 team victories over her career, four ACC championships and the 2002 NCAA title.

Following an opening round one-under par 72, Shepherd stood tied for eighth with only the top 30 scorers advancing to the final round.

The second round on Thursday was much tougher. She had dropped three shots on the day, but remained above the cut line until she bogeyed the 15th hole. When her approach shot came up short, she attempted an awkward chip shot that went long, and two putts later she suddenly had dropped to three-over par and on the bubble to advance.

Heading to the 16th tee, you could see the determination in the face of the 18-year-old future Blue Devil.

“I knew I had to birdie at least one of my remaining holes to make it,” Shepherd explained. “I like knowing where I am in a tournament and putting that pressure on myself.”

She got her birdie on the 18th, her dream of being one of the first women to play at Augusta National Golf Club now realized, adding to an already impressive pedigree. Shepherd represented her country as a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team and U.S. Junior Solheim Cup team while winning the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur. Her 2018 highlights include a runnerup finish at the Polo Golf Junior Classic and a second-place tie at the PING Invitational, as well as making the cut in an LPGA event in Indianapolis. She also qualified for both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open in 2018.    

While only two Blue Devils made the final round on Saturday, all five women joined the entire tournament field in playing a practice round at Augusta National on Friday.

From the moment you walked out on the range early on Friday morning, you could see big smiles that remained on the players’ faces throughout the round — even after they exhaled following their round on a course they never thought they would ever have the opportunity to play.

Carta put it best as she hit wedges on the range. “I’m not leaving,” she said emphatically. “I’m staying here forever.”

One very interested bystander at the event was Sarah LeBrun Ingram, a 1988 Duke graduate and All-America who was recently named as the captain of the 2020 U.S. Curtis Cup team. The Curtis Cup is the best-known team trophy for women amateur golfers, awarded at the biennial Curtis Cup match. It is co-organized by the United States Golf Association and The R&A and is contested by teams representing the United States and Great Britain and Ireland. The 2020 matches will be held in Wales.

“This is a great opportunity for women’s golf to showcase their game on one of the world’s most well-known courses,” said Ingram, who played on three Curtis Cup teams and was a three-time U.S. Mid-Am Champion. “From having played here myself this is a real challenge for these players.”

Nancy Lopez and fellow LPGA Hall of Fame members Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak added to the lore of the new ANWA event by hitting ceremonial tee shots to open the round on Saturday at Augusta.

“The women’s game has developed in so many meaningful ways since I began playing, and this championship marks another significant milestone that will help inspire interest and grow the game,” Lopez said. “It’s truly exciting to see these young women take the stage in one of golf’s most iconic settings.”

On a beautiful Saturday morning in Augusta, Shepherd and Boonchant teed off with the top 30 remaining players. Shepherd had a start to remember as she blasted her opening tee shot into the middle of the fairway on the 365-yard, par-4 first hole on the way to a birdie.

After a par on No. 2, she missed the fairway on the third hole and was not able to get the par. She then struck fire, going two-under-par over the next eight holes to put her name in the top 10 on the leaderboard. She finished with a 75, good for 23rd place. 

For Boonchant the walk was a little different, as it has been for most of her life. It is 9,107 miles from Bangkok to Augusta, halfway around the world from where she first learned to play golf with her father at a local driving range.

However, on Friday, as she strolled up the fairway at Augusta National finishing her practice round, spending some time chatting with Hall of Famers Sorenstam and Lopez and shaking hands with Augusta member and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the Thailand native looked right at home.

Boonchant currently stands 25th in the world amateur rankings and had what she hoped was a special weapon for her final round at Augusta.

Her caddie, Johnny “Chili” Estay, in his fourth season caddying at Augusta National, carried for her in the first two rounds at Champion Retreat.

“I depended a lot on my caddie to figure out the speed of the putts and where to aim,” explained Bouchant. “His reads were very important. Figuring out the breaks and where to hit approach shots to the greens, was great information on very tricky greens. Having a caddie that has caddied here all the time was very helpful.”

Boonchant had a little tougher start with three bogeys and a birdie on the first three holes the final day.

“I was so nervous my hands were shaking on the first hole,” said Boonchant. “I’ve played in four LPGA events and never played in front of this many fans.”

On the day, Boonchant had four birdies combined with six bogeys. On No. 15 her chip shot from 57 yards almost went in the hole for an eagle-3. She finished the day with a 74 and tied for 12th place — and walked off the 18th hole with a big smile on her face.

In the end, it was the smiles that dominated this famed course on Friday and Saturday during the first-ever visit by the best amateur women’s players in the world. The smiles on the faces of the players, whether they won or lost. The smiles on the faces of the patrons. And the smiles on the faces of the little girls who were able to talk with, meet and have pictures made with the young women who are the future of the game, their heroes. That is what made this event memorable.