AUGUSTA, Ga. – After a one-year break because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur seems poised to build on its momentum from the inaugural edition.
In spring 2019, Jennifer Kupcho used a second-nine flourish to outduel Maria Fassi in one of the most memorable showcases in women’s golf history. This year’s tournament could be just as exciting, with teen phenom Rose Zhang tied for the lead and nine players separated by just three shots.
Here are the five biggest questions heading into the third and final round at Augusta National (Click here to watch live stream, beginning at noon ET Saturday):
Who are the main contenders?
Zhang and Ingrid Lindblad are tied for the lead at 1 under, the only players to sit under par after two days at another challenging track, Champions Retreat. Both are highly accomplished players: Zhang, 17, is a month from high school graduation but is the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and the top-ranked player in the world. Lindblad, a sophomore at LSU, is no slouch, either: Ranked No. 4 in the world, she won the European Team Championship for Sweden in 2019 and was a 2020 Annika Award finalist as the top player in college golf. They have a small bit of history together: Lindblad went 1-0-2 against Zhang at the 2018 Junior Ryder Cup.
But unlike two years ago, when Kupcho and Fassi separated themselves early, this final round figures to be more tightly packed. There are seven other players within two shots of the lead, including Arizona State star Olivia Mehaffey, who is coming off a tournament-best 69 at Champions Retreat; Sun Devils teammate and world No. 2 Linn Grant, who has won three consecutive college events; and Auston Kim, an All-American at Vanderbilt.
Who else could make a charge?
Grant begins the final round three shots back and will draw plenty of attention from the frontrunners if she makes a run. She played her way into the final group Saturday at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open before stumbling over the weekend.
Two shots back, Houston’s Helen Fredgaard has her college coach, Gerrod Chadwell (Stacy Lewis’ husband), on the bag. Chadwell described Fredgarad as a ball-striking machine; during a recent 36-hole day at the Golf Club of Houston, the longtime host of the PGA Tour event, she hit 35 of 36 greens. Leonie Harm, who currently plays on the Ladies European Tour, is the best player to come through the Houston program – but Fredgaard, Chadwell said, is “twice as good.”
As for a longshot, watch out for South Carolina’s Pauline Roussin-Bouchard, who is five shots off the lead after a few sloppy rounds at Champions Retreat. Asked how far back was too far back, she said: “Five shots on this course, it’s not nothing, but anything can happen.”
How is Augusta National playing?
We’ll let the players handle that one:
Grant: “Pretty tough.”
Maja Stark: “Pretty tough.”
Kaleigh Telfer: “Pretty tough.”
Gina Kim: “It was pretty tough.”
Yeah, you get the idea.
The players’ one and only practice round Friday began with temperatures below 40 degrees and a steady breeze out of the north, the most difficult direction. That made three of the four par 5s play into the wind and required some holes, like the par-4 18th, to be approached with 3-woods, hybrids and 4-irons.
Many of these severely undulating greens aren’t meant to receive lower shot trajectories, but players said they were hitting anywhere from 5- to 7-irons into the par 3s. Those who played here in the inaugural edition two years ago also noted how firm the greens were compared to 2019 and that it was difficult to hold some of the putting surfaces. Barring a setup change, that’ll likely continue to be the case with the wind drying out greens that Gina Kim described as already “crispy.”
The high Saturday is supposed to be about 10 degrees warmer, in the mid-60s, and the wind will be light and come out of a more favorable direction. That should allow players to be more aggressive into the par 5s, but it’ll be interesting to see how much risk they’re willing to take on if they weren’t able to hit those shots during the practice round – or perhaps were scared off by finding the water on Friday.
And the green speeds? Well ...
“The greens are very, very, very fast,” said Kim, currently in a tie for third, a shot back. “I thought I was reading putts pretty well, and then they would keep on going.”
Said Grant: “I heard they were going to speed them up a little bit and try to make them a little bit firmer. That’s exciting, but scary.”
How can they learn the course in one day?
Quite simply, they can’t. Those in the field who play college golf are used to one-day practice rounds before a tournament, but they’re also not charting courses with as much nuance and strategy as Augusta National. They’d need five hours to learn all of the intricacies of the ninth green, let alone the entire course.
“It’s a lot of information,” Grant said. “It’s like a puzzle: You put your pieces together, and sometimes they fit and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully they fit.”
But Grant and the other contenders aren’t flying completely blind either. On Friday, each player had an Augusta National caddie at her disposal, so she could pepper the looper with questions about wind direction, start lines, areas to miss and green-reading. Some are using them in the tournament round too; Mehaffey, for instance, has been using the same Augusta National caddie, Brian McKinley, that Kupcho had on the bag in 2019.
Those who competed two years ago also have an idea of where the hole locations were cut then – and now are hoping they’re positioned there again on Saturday.
“Otherwise we’re going to be so off,” Grant said, laughing. “That would be so terrible.”
Still, it’s a lot to take in in one afternoon – especially for those who are seeing the course for the first time and want to soak in the experience.
“I have so many words to describe how happy I am to be here,” Roussin-Bouchard said. “Wonderful. Beautiful. So perfect. Yeah. Just amazing.” Though she was hard at work, she still found herself looking around more in between shots. “Like, I didn’t want to leave my broken tee on the tee because it was imperfect compared to everything that’s just perfect.”
It’s worth noting that of the 30 players competing Saturday, just nine made the weekend cut in 2019.
Will we see a repeat of 2019?
It’s a high bar to clear. Kupcho closed with a spectacular 67, but there was only one other score in the 60s. Eight players overall broke par in the final round, which was played in warmer temperatures and softer conditions. The ladies essentially played from the member tees, about 6,350 yards.
With the 36-hole co-leaders starting at 1 under par – indeed, early-week host Champions Retreat is no cupcake, especially in a 20-mph wind – it’s unlikely we’ll see many players (if any) finish 54 holes under par, barring some sensational play from the final groups.
Needing to leapfrog seven other players, Grant’s goal is to fire a round in the 60s Saturday. But she conceded: “I can also see that it will be a struggle to get it under 70.”
Much of the final-round forecasting is weather dependent – if the wind switches direction, or dies down completely, the par 5s become more gettable and the course presents more scoring opportunities.
It’s also impossible to quantify the impact of the pressure. In the final group, Zhang has won a USGA title and Lindblad has competed for her country, but never have they performed from the lead position, on this worldwide stage.
“It would mean the world, honestly,” Zhang said. “Anyone who can have a title at Augusta National, it’s just a dream come true. It’s just surreal.”