One hundred thirty-two players and up to two guests.
That was part of this year’s USGA regulations for those women lucky enough to play in the oldest USGA championship, the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
This year, in the era of COVID-19, everything the USGA did had to be evaluated through the lens of safety. That meant a new landscape of masks and hand sanitizer, along with no spectators and a sophisticated testing plan. It was definitely not a normal tournament. But inside the ropes, the golf was just as strong as ever as it always seems to be at this championship, made up mostly of young women in high school and college where only seven of the players were over the age of 26. The diversity of players’ technical swings, their backgrounds, and how they earned entrance into the field told many different stories.
As a full-time golf instructor and coach at Woodmont Country Club, the host venue for this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur, the championship week was a feast for my eyes and heart. With 20 of the young women in the field listed in the top 50 of Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking and 49 veterans from last year’s championship, the best in our game were on my home course, exhibiting their own routines, personalities, and vastly different swings.
Watching this tournament is immeasurably different than the professionals for a few reasons:
To begin with, the format is a marathon. Finalists play ten rounds of golf in a week (practice round, two qualifying rounds, match play rounds of 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, and then 36 holes in the finals). Even players in great physical shape are worn out by the end. And think of the parent who is caddying. Woodmont has a lot of hills and was playing to 6,580 yards. With distance between the holes, that’s an average hike of about five miles per round, which totals 50 miles in eight days. Better have good shoes!
In this championship, there are a lot more Hail Mary shots. This is the single most important amateur championship—the very top. So, it’s a go-for-broke-or-go-home event.
Kajal Mistry, who shot roller-coaster scores of 81-69 in qualifying, made it into a playoff with 15 other players for six spots. On the first playoff hole, the sophomore at Arkansas had the only birdie, putting her safely into match play. After shooting 81, most people would have given up.
In a normal stroke play event, when you’re playing for a score, you won’t often see the risk/reward shots that you do in match play. For example, Kaleigh Telfer of South Africa dropped six birdies on her opponent, Talia Campbell of New York City, in the first round. The match was finished on the thirteenth hole, and Talia had not played badly—she was just 1-over par.
The finalists were Rose Zhang, the 17-year-old Stanford commit, and Gabi Ruffels, the USC Junior and defending U.S. Women’s Amateur champion from Australia. Though they had different personalities on the course—Rose clearly displaying emotions after hitting a poor shot, or relief after a difficult shot was pulled off while Gabi was more stoic, keeping her emotions closely checked to herself—the players displayed all of the qualities you would want your kids to watch: determination, grit, sportsmanship, skill, poise, and grace under pressure.
I would take either one of their swings as a model for efficiency and both had great skill around the tightly-guarded greens. After watching them hit many, many shots over dozens of holes, I can safely say they know their routines and stuck to them. Neither unraveled with the pressure of the match or a bad lie.
At the start of the championship, no one could have guessed who the winner would be. Match play lends itself to exciting drama and unexpected outcomes. This year was no different. It will be fun to see where these ladies end up, either continuing their amateur careers through college and beyond or onto the professional tours that will gladly take them.
It is also great that I was able to see the best women amateurs up close on a course that I know well. The depth of talent was amazing and left me with one indelible thought: Our game is in a good place and the future looks very bright.