One round for women at Au­gusta

Col­umn: Na­tional Women’s Ama­teur his­toric

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Beth Ann Ni­chols Colum­nist Golfweek USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

When Erica Shep­herd was in the fifth grade, she wrote a bucket-list pa­per that in­cluded the fol­low­ing: play bas­ket­ball and golf at Duke; be­come the first woman to play in the Mas­ters; marry Cody Zoeller and have twin boys.

Parts of that es­say, typed on pink pa­per with an im­age of “The Big Handsome” at­tached, are enough to make a teenage Shep­herd blush. Still, 12-yearold Shep­herd was re­mark­ably pre­scient.

The 2017 U.S. Girls’ Ju­nior cham­pion heads to Duke this fall to play golf. This week the Hoosier na­tive is one of 72 women who have a chance to make his­tory as the first fe­male to hoist a tro­phy at Au­gusta Na­tional.

“I think hav­ing those dreams,” said 18-year-old Shep­herd, “and just putting them on pa­per just makes it so much more pos­si­ble to be­come re­al­is­tic.”

Fifth-grade Shep­herd couldn’t pos­si­bly un­der­stand the stag­ger­ing reach of that Au­gusta dream, although it was writ­ten in 2012, the same year the club wel­comed its first fe­male mem­bers.

ANWA or ANA? Choice to be made

For the past year, peo­ple have asked which event I’m go­ing to cover the first week of April. With the ANA In­spi­ra­tion and the in­au­gu­ral Au­gusta Na­tional Women’s Ama­teur over­lap­ping, there was a choice to be made.

I have cov­ered the past 15 ANAs, but for all of the girls like Shep­herd who dreamed of one day competing at Au­gusta, and for those who couldn’t bring them­selves to even think it, the choice was clear: Go watch his­tory be made.

“It’s go­ing to be ev­ery­thing,” Shep­herd said of what it would mean to win. “They’ll al­ways be the first win­ner of what could be the big­gest turn­ing point in women’s golf.”

Even be­fore the first ball is in the air on Satur­day, we can all agree this wasn’t a home run for Au­gusta Na­tional. There’s a prac­tice round in the mid­dle of the tour­na­ment for Pete’s sake.

The fact that the women only get one round at Au­gusta Na­tional feels like a slight. The mak­ing of this event should’ve been done in con­cert with the LPGA so that the best am­a­teurs in the world wouldn’t have to choose be­tween a ma­jor and Au­gusta Na­tional.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to over­look those two mis­steps.

Yet it re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward. And in the spirit of the LPGA’s new Drive On cam­paign, a trip down Mag­no­lia Lane is for ev­ery girl. They will crush it.

I’ve never met some­one who went to Au­gusta Na­tional for the first time and came back say­ing it was over­rated. It’s one of the few places on the planet that ex­ceeds the hype.

Goose­bumps on your goose­bumps

The fact that Nancy Lopez, An­nika Soren­stam, Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak — the Mount Rush­more of mod­ern-day women’s golf — will be gath­ered on the first tee Satur­day morn­ing to usher in a new era at Au­gusta hits all of the right notes.

It’s un­for­tu­nate that some folks can’t en­joy what’s com­ing — and there will be goose­bumps on your goose­bumps Satur­day — with­out lament­ing about the fact that there’s no Women’s Mas­ters.

Oth­ers be­lieve what’s been made of the event’s po­ten­tial im­pact to be overblown.

Those peo­ple have prob­a­bly never turned on the tele­vi­sion to see some­one who looks like them do what once seemed im­pos­si­ble for the first time.

Soren­stam, a three-time win­ner of the ANA In­spi­ra­tion, has no prob­lem see­ing the week from a big-pic­ture stand­point.

“I think Cor­po­rate Amer­ica is go­ing to be there on Satur­day to see it,” she said. “The girls will have the big­gest stage in women’s golf. I don’t see a down­side to that at all.”

Last Wed­nes­day, Lopez joined col­lege golf ’s Maria Fassi and Sierra Brooks for a me­dia tour in New York City. Fassi and Brooks helped un­veil the ANWA tro­phy on NBC’s “To­day” show.

New York me­dia tours don’t hap­pen much for LPGA play­ers — think Michelle Wie wins the U.S. Women’s Open — and never for am­a­teurs. That’s the pull of Au­gusta Na­tional, and women’s golf needs it.

This one round is im­por­tant

When many of the de­ci­sion-mak­ers in this coun­try watch these women com­pete on Satur­day and meet them in per­son, they’ll be blown away by the to­tal pack­age.

What that trans­lates to long term on the LPGA and on the grounds of Au­gusta Na­tional is guess­work at this stage, but this one round is im­por­tant.

We can all hope that Au­gusta Na­tional’s com­mit­ment to the women’s game and this tour­na­ment only grows stronger. That the el­e­ments that make this feel like a to­ken ges­ture one day cease to ex­ist.

In the mean­time, let’s cel­e­brate the fact that the best fe­male am­a­teurs in the world will com­pete in front of mon­ster crowds on net­work tele­vi­sion with his­tory on the line.

“I think it’s huge,” Soren­stam said, “I re­ally do.”

No­body in Shep­herd’s fifth-grade class thought she’d re­ally go to Duke, much less play at Au­gusta Na­tional.

She sure showed them.


Erica Shep­herd is one of 72 who’ll play the Au­gusta Women’s Na­tional Ama­teur. The fi­nal round will be at Au­gusta Na­tional.

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