AUGUSTA, Ga. – When Latanna Stone is at her best, when she’s really locked in, her play is mind-numbingly boring.
Fairway. Green. Two-putt.
“I mean this with all sincerity,” LSU head coach Garrett Runion said, “it’s like watching paint dry.”
Sometimes in practice, the LSU junior will pull off a sweet shot and chirp at her coach: “G, you see that?”
“Nah, sorry,” he’ll playfully reply, “I fell asleep.”
But here they were Saturday afternoon, jarred awake by the career-changing possibilities. Stone was standing on the right side of the 17th fairway, staked to a two-shot lead in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. All that stood between her and arguably the most prestigious title in amateur golf were three full, boring shots.
“It was so close,” teammate Ingrid Lindblad said, “but that’s Augusta National.”
For three years, Stone, 20, has been overshadowed by her more heralded teammate. Lindblad is the second-ranked amateur in the world and has set the school record for victories, including three this spring. And she briefly had a chance to win this year’s edition, too. On a perfect spring afternoon, she made two eagles and carded the round of the day, a 4-under 68, despite a closing bogey. The clubhouse leader, Lindblad retreated to the dining room, where she downed a ham-and-cheese sandwich and Coke Zero and rooted on her former roommate.
Late last fall, Stone wasn’t even guaranteed to be in this ANWA field. After a disappointing summer, she had plummeted to 62nd in the world ranking and was in danger of missing out as an automatic American qualifier. Then she ironed out her driver and went on a mini-tear, winning the Dixie Women’s Amateur and then defending her title at the Orlando International Amateur to secure her spot. Entering the ANWA, she was ranked 42nd.
“She falls behind Ingrid a little bit and gets overlooked,” Runion said. “But she kind of likes that, because when Ingrid is doing all the interviews, she can move in silence and be the silent assassin.”
Few gave Stone a realistic chance to win against this elite field, but her coaches were quietly confident. Champions Retreat, the nearby qualifying course, is a stern test with brand-new, firm, fast greens that were going to be difficult to hold. Throw in a 20-mph breeze, and the stress-fest was right in Stone’s wheelhouse.
“She composes herself very well. Doesn’t get rattled. Doesn’t get too high or low,” Runion said. “She plays well in tournaments that are around even par, where you don’t have to go make 20 birdies. She plays hard golf courses very well.”
It’s where her brand of golf can shine.
“Boring golf can be good golf,” Lindblad said. “It can be boring and good.”
Unbothered by a marathon weather delay during the second round, Stone carded consecutive rounds of 72 to share the 36-hole lead and secure a spot in the final group. On Friday afternoon, Stone shuttled to Augusta National for her one and only practice round at the home of the Masters. It’s impossible to learn the intricacies of the famed course in a day; it’s even more challenging when players, already fatigued from a 5 a.m. wakeup and drained from a brutish qualifying course, hurried along to conserve energy for the final round.
“I know where I’m standing,” Stone said, “but I’m just going to go out there and play my game.”
After a shaky opening bogey Saturday, Stone settled into her round and inched ahead on a day when nine players were separated by a shot. She rebounded with a birdie on the second hole. She made back-to-back birdies to close out her first nine. She played Amen Corner under par and added another birdie, her sixth of the day, by stiffing her tee shot on 16.
That’s how she wound up on the right side of the 17th fairway, two shots clear of 16-year-old Anna Davis and three full shots from victory.
From 130 yards away, Stone chose pitching wedge off an upslope, but the ball ballooned into the air and wound up short of the right greenside bunker.
“No shot,” Runion said.
Chipping is not a strength of Stone’s game, and this was a dicey pitch, off a tight lie, that could easily be dumped into the bunker. She played the smart shot, blasting it to the back of the green, but her par putt from 40 feet was too aggressive and raced 6 feet past. The comebacker never hit the hole.
Suddenly, her two-shot lead was gone – and the ANWA was no longer boring.
“I thought I could get it back on 18,” she said, “but I had a lot going on in my head.”
Stone’s mind raced even more after her final tee shot sliced into the trees, leaving her no shot at the flag. Two clear less than a half-hour earlier, she now needed an up-and-down just to force a playoff. Her chip shot scurried 15 feet past and her par putt never had a chance, the patrons surrounding the 18th green so stunned by the late collapse they barely mustered a reaction.
“It’s just heartbreaking, y’know?” she said later.
Stone staggered off the green and into the open arms of Lindblad. Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson all offered kind words. Runion consoled her, “You did good, kid.” The gallery applauded every step of Stone’s dazed walk toward the scoring building.
“I’m really overwhelmed,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that, and that really brought me to tears.”
After signing for a third consecutive 72, one stroke too many, Stone wiped away tears and tried to compose herself before two interviews. There was little to say, not much to explain. Davis played cleanly on the second nine; Stone did not, at least not at the end, not when boring would have produced a result so thrilling.
“You play 52 great holes and two that sting a little bit more,” Runion said. “This one, obviously, is going to sting for a while, but no one accomplishes anything great without a little bit of adversity. This is some bigger adversity than normal, but I think it will motivate her.”
While Davis was whisked to the press building to bask in her unlikely accomplishment, Stone hung back near the first tee. She hugged a few members. She signed balls and posed for pictures with a couple young girls. She sorted through her disappointment with her family, her boyfriend, her coach.
“Just put my arms around her, tell her I love her and that I’m proud of her,” said her father, Michael Stone. “I don’t care if she came in first or 10th. I’m just glad she got the opportunity to play and experience the crowds and all of that stuff. It’s a good thing. We’re OK. We’ll come back next year – stronger.”
The tears dried, the cameras packed up, the patrons funneling toward the exit, Stone began the healing process.
She laughed about how she really wanted to start sobbing in Annika’s arms.
How she had just kind of stared at Bubba in his green jacket, star-struck, and mouthed, “Thank you.”
And how, now that it was all over, well, one thing could really help: a little retail therapy.
Turning toward the pro shop, she said with a smirk, “I’m about to go shop ’till I drop.”