SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – She knew her dad gave her fake clubs. At age 6, Ana Peláez Triviño shook her head at her father and handed him back the plastic driver. Seventeen years later the Spaniard has turned into a star player for her country and her school, South Carolina.
But it wasn’t always that way. She got off track, like most college kids trying to find their way. That was until she stepped onto the grounds of Augusta National, and saw her friend Marta Perez Sanmartin, who played for Florida, compete in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
“I told my coach, Sergio de Céspedes, I’m going to play in this tournament next year, like this is going to happen,” Peláez said.
Peláez was born and raised in Malaga, Spain, and came to the United States in 2016 to play for the Gamecocks.
"Ana plays with incredible fight and passion,” South Carolina head coach Kalen Anderson said.
Peláez said her freshman year felt “easy,” and to the outside world, she clearly looked to be making quite a showing. Peláez became the first freshman in South Carolina history to earn All-America honors. She had two top-5 finishes, including a victory at the 2017 NCAA Columbus Regional.
“I felt like this wasn’t hard and this was weird for me because I love working hard," Peláez said. "I know if I want something I have to work for it. It led me to a very lazy path.”
PELAEZ HAS INCREDIBLE TALENT, and it was her talent that allowed her to cruise her freshman year. Sophomore year was a different story. She distanced herself from teammates and surrounded herself with people who did not influence her to be her very best, to be the competitor that plays with fight and passion.
You can chill. You can have fun. It's college.
Those were the messages she was being fed.
“And that’s when things started to go downhill, Peláez said. "I wasn’t doing well mentally. School was okay, but not great. I got very lazy at golf. I just wanted to be in my comfort zone.”
And the people who cared about her the most were across the ocean.
“My swing coach knows everything about my life," Peláez said. "He’s like my second dad. During that period of time, I was very secretive. I was trying to make the world seem that I was really happy, and I even lied to him telling him that I was practicing. The truth, golf was so bad. I didn’t want to step on a golf course. He wasn’t here so it was hard for him to know if I was being honest.”
Then Peláez returned home, and de Céspedes noticed that the higher tournament scores were more than just bad rounds.
“He knew I wasn’t being influenced in a good way, but at the same time he let me be," Peláez said. "He knew I was going to realize at one point. If I really love the game, I should be the one telling myself this has to go.”
Then ANWA happened. Everyone was talking about it. ANWA was the tournament to play. If you competed in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, there was no question you were one of the best players in the world. In that moment, watching her friend play, Peláez saw where she could be – and she wasn’t there.
“For me it was shocking," Peláez said. "Like, what have I done to myself? I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, and I don’t want to keep on this path. I don’t want to do this to myself anymore.”
ANWA held more weight than any other tournament. It was more than the title for Peláez.
“I’m a person who loves helping people and ANWA is a tournament that inspires other people," Peláez said. "Picturing myself in that tournament and feeling that I could help someone, it clicked for me that I want to do this. I also want to represent my country, and I want to be a part of the history of this tournament. ANWA is crazy, every female golfer wants to play this tournament, and it opened my eyes to who I wanted to be in the future.”
First things first: start fresh.
Peláez quit the toxic relationships. She apologized to her teammates. She and de Céspedes worked to shore up her technique, and she also spent time with her mental coach, Oscar Del Río.
“As I worked on my swing I also worked on my mindset," Peláez said. "For me, if I don’t believe I can do it, I’m lost. I used to compare myself so much against every player. That person is better at putting, that person is more fit, all of that. I have a notebook and after every tournament, I write every single thought I have. The bad thoughts, I work on it, the positive ones I write them down so I can go back to them and read them.
"That’s made me tough. You think you will remember good shots, but you don’t. When I feel like I don’t trust something, I just go back to those notes. When you go to big tournaments it’s normal to feel like everyone is so much better. I need something to remind me that I’m not less than anyone. The only think I can control is the 90 seconds before hitting the ball.”
Trust it, trust it, trust it, de Céspedes would constantly tell her.
“If you know you’re going to hit it in the water, would you rather hit it in the water being committed to the shot or being scared of hitting it in the water?” de Céspedes would ask.
Peláez's hard work paid off when she arrived back in Columbia. She finished T-7 at the 2019 Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic and followed with a T-10 finish at the SEC Championship later that spring.
“I felt like I was back. It was such an exciting feeling,” Peláez said.
And then COVID happened.
IT WAS SPRING BREAK and Peláez had flown back home for a lesson with de Céspedes. In the middle of the night, her father woke up up telling her she needed to be on the first flight back to the U.S. The borders are going to close. The next call was from Anderson, telling her the NCAA Championship had been canceled.
Peláez had a choice to stay in Spain or travel back to Columbia, South Carolina, for the small chance the Gamecocks play SECs, which was still on. She decided to get on a plane. When she landed in the U.S., though, her phone buzzed again.
“Do not get on the flight to Colombia. SEC Championship got canceled,” Anderson had texted while Peláez was mid-flight.
So, Peláez flew back home within 24 hours of landing in the U.S., and from March 10 to May 5, she had to quarantine in her house. It felt like her momentum, which had been flooding back, had vanished.
“First couple of weeks I could not wrap my head around everything," Peláez said. "My coach told me to take take it easy, it’s the same thing for everyone, and it’s not the end of the world.”
It wasn’t the easiest thing to process, but luckily for Peláez, after May 5 athletes in Spain were allowed to leave their home to practice. As soon as she got that opportunity, she and de Céspedes worked every day. Her first tournament back was the Campeonato Internacional Absoluto de Andalucia. She tied for third.
“Everyone was talking about how well I was playing, but I felt like I was in my own bubble," Peláez said. "No one could get in my way. It was the first time I felt I knew what I wanted, and no one could influence me otherwise.”
IT WAS 7 A.M. and the South Carolina team was in the middle of a winter workout. A few minutes later, their strength coach left the facility and returned with a package in hand. It was for Peláez, and it was from Augusta National Golf Club.
“As soon as I saw it I started crying because it was something I cherished for so long," Peláez said of receiving her ANWA invitation. "I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that it’s real, it’s happening. When I arrived at Champions Retreat, this time was different than other tournaments because for some reason for the first time in my life, I felt that I was one of the best players and that I could win this tournament.”
That April, Peláez made the cut at 5 over to become one of 30 women to advance to the third and final round at prestigious and legendary Augusta National.
On the first tee, Peláez had those 2019 memories come to mind. Now, two years later, she was fulfilling her dreams.
“I told myself, this is what I want, this is why I play," Peláez said. "I remember running down the hill and doing the airplane with my arms. I was so happy and also nervous, so I needed something to calm me down."
Peláez shot an impressive round of 1-under 71, which bumped her up nine spots to a T-12 finish. A month later, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and was selected to play in the Arnold Palmer Cup.
Peláez might have achieved her goal to play ANWA, but she’s not done yet.
“My ultimate goal is to be the best player in the world, so that’s what keeps me motivated," said Peláez, who capped her college career with first-team All-America honors and plans on turning pro and playing Q-School later this year.
She has realized that golf is a game of confidence. She may not know the score she’s going to shoot, but she has to believe that she can shoot low, that she can win, that she can become the best player in the world, that she can inspire thousands of young girls to chase the same dream.