ANWA has taken women’s golf to a new level

The inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur was staged a few days before the Masters tournament and partially on the same course the male stars played their first major championship of 2019. It turned out to be one of those rare golf competitions where the determination of the champion wasn’t the most important thing – not by a long shot.

A couple of collegians soon to become touring pros, Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, put on a captivating duel going head-to-head in the final pairing before Kupcho won. That was all well and good, and so was the obvious friendship and sportsmanship that both strived to present for the big on-site galleries and national television audience.

This was more about the big picture. Bottom line, you’ve got to like what’s been going on for a while now in the women’s game.

For the third straight year the top women players had a new high profile event to build on. In 2017 it was the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort. In 2018 it was the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. And now, in 2019 in was the tournament recognized as simply the ANWA.

The ANWA had far fewer players than its two predecessors but it had also more hoopla and far bigger galleries. The post-round awards ceremony was very Masters-like, too. Augusta National’s membership certainly knows how to stage – and market – a big golf event. The two professional events, put on by the LPGA and U.S. Golf Association, didn’t come close.

“Just walking up the fairway with so many people is a feeling like no other,’’ said Kupcho. “This tournament showed how good we are. It exceeded my expectations, and it was the most organized tournament I’ve ever played in. The women’s game will come up stronger because of it.’’

Saturday’s gallery marched four deep on both sides of the fairways when Kupcho and Fassi were wrapping up their daylong duel for the title.

Kupcho, the reigning NCAA champion and No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, took control thanks to a torrid stretch on holes 13 through 16. She played them in eagle-par-birdie-birdie and added another bird with a 25-footer to conclude the tournament. That’s as strong a performance on Augusta’s Amen Corner stretch as most any male star has produced over the years.

The tourney started with 72 invited players, and 25 countries were represented. Augusta National was set up at 6,365 yards for the ANWA. The men played it at 7,475 yards in the Masters .

Fred Ridley, the Augusta National president who announced the creation of the first women’s competition at storied Augusta National at the 2018 Masters, saw nothing but positives from the first staging.

“Focusing on women’s accomplishments in general, not just in golf and sports, is good for society,’’ he said. It’s good for everybody’’

The final round started with ceremonial tee shots from four of the greats of women’s golf—Se Ri Pak, Lorena Ochoa, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam. They had the same good vibes that Ridley had.

“When they announced it last year I had chills wishing I could be an amateur again so I could come and play,’’ said Lopez.

“It was so exciting to see the players after their rounds, their smiles all up to their ears,’’ said Sorenstam. “They can’t stop smiling and it’s a dream come true. I’m so happy for them.’’

There were three players with Illinois connections in the starting 72. They didn’t perform well, but they all felt good about being in the historic first field of this big event. Illinois’ Tristyn Nowlin, Northwestern’s Stephanie Lao and Missouri’s Jessica Yuen, from Bolingbrook, didn’t survive the 36-hole cut.

The trio battled for two rounds at Champions Retreat, the site for the first two rounds in the town of Evans on the outskirts of Augusta., and they did get to play a practice round a day later at Augusta National.

Champions Retreat, a private club that has one nine designed by Arnold Palmer and the other by Jack Nicklaus, was the warmup site for this ground-breaking tourney.

Nowlin, an Illini junior, tied for 52nd and was 9-over-par for the tournament and six shots shy of the cut line. Lau, in her final season at Northwestern, tied for 69th and Yuen tied for 71st. Neither Lau nor Yuen could break 80 in the second round but they took the setback in stride.
“I have to keep in mind that it was special to be part of something historic and play a small part in it,’’ said Lao, who will enter the professional ranks after Northwestern’s season is over. She looked on the ANWA as a good learning experience.

“I just try to look at it on a micro level and a macro level,’’ she said. “On the macro level I have to remember the big picture. On the micro-level, it’s still golf at the end of the day. I’m just trying to hone my skills and enjoy it as long as I can.’’

Nowlin got in her first competition of 2019 at Champions Retreat. She had been recovering from February wrist surgery until being cleared to play two weeks earlier.

“I was very glad to be back in competition,’’ she said

Like Nowlin, Yuen had battled a wrist injury and received her ANWA invitation only a week before the competition began. She was a late invitee after another player withdrew because of injury.

“I wasn’t fully aware of this tournament until I got there,’’ said Yuen. “It was huge, bigger than the U.S. Amateur.’’

At first, though, she wasn’t sure she should go because her game was struggling

“I’m glad I got the phone call,’’ she said after getting a taste of what the event was all about. “I earned my way in, and my coach said I had to go. Playing there was great. I was so honored to be there.’’