Photo by (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons)
AUGUSTA, Mo. (July 29, 2017) - The 18th hole at Boone Valley Golf Club is called “Waterloo,” but for Erica Shepherd, it was the par-3 16th hole that had given her fits in the 69th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
How satisfying then that the hole she had double-bogeyed in stroke play and struggled with all week in matches would prove to be the spot where she sealed victory in the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior, a championship that had been won by her friend and mentor Leigh Anne Hardin Creavy 19 years earlier.
When Shepherd tapped in a short par putt after a solid 5-iron tee shot on the 194-yard hole, her 3-and-2 victory over 16th-seeded Jennifer Chang, of Cary, N.C., was complete. And so was a quest of sorts.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always told everyone when making my goals, this is the goal that I have to accomplish,” said Shepherd, 16, of Greenwood, Ind., the No. 35 match-play seed whose middle name is “Leigh” in honor of Creavy. “I have her as my [screen] background holding the Girls’ Junior trophy to try to motivate me to do that.”
Shepherd was motivated, but also struggling to overcome the unfortunate ending of her semifinal victory over Elizabeth Moon on Friday, when Moon pulled her ball back toward her before her tap-in putt had been conceded. Under the Rules of Golf, Shepherd could not concede the putt after Moon touched the ball.
On Saturday morning, Shepherd’s opponent – and close friend – Chang pulled her aside before they stepped to the first tee.
“I was on the putting green, and she just walked toward me and gave me a hug,” said Shepherd. “She just asked if I was OK, and I kind of broke down and started crying, then she gave me this whole speech about like how there was nothing I could have done about it, and that just really boosted me back up and got me to regroup.”
“I said, forget about that,” said Chang. “Let's have some fun. Just you and me, one-on-one. Let’s go for it.”
Shepherd also heard from Creavy before the championship match.
“She just told me she knew how I felt because she can relate to me caring too much about what other people think,” said Shepherd, who became the second left-handed female champion in USGA history, joining fellow Hoosier Julia Potter (2013, 2016 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur). “She told me to just be Erica, and to not let what other people were saying get in my head or distract me.”
Shepherd took the lead in the championship match on the par-4 second hole, putting Chang in a position she had not experienced in any of her five previous matches: behind. In fact, Chang had been an amazing front-runner from the Round of 64 through the semifinals – she not only never trailed, she had only been all square in a match for four holes total.
“That came to my mind, just that one moment when I lost that second hole,” said Chang, 17, a high school senior who has verbally committed to the University of Southern California. “But, I forgot about that right away. I was like, there’s plenty of golf left. There’s nothing that can stop you right now.”
Chang rallied to take her only lead of the match on the 12th hole of the morning round, and she stood 1 down after Shepherd missed the green on No. 16 and made bogey. But Shepherd solidified her advantage going into the lunch break by winning holes 17 and 18 to go 3 up, as she birdied No. 17 and Chang hit her approach shot into the water on No. 18.
But the match was far from over. Shepherd, a high school junior who has verbally committed to Duke University for fall 2018, maintained at least a 3-up lead through 27 holes, but she made a sloppy double bogey on the par-4 10th hole and lost the 13th hole when Chang converted an 8-foot birdie to trim the advantage to one hole.
“I guess I did get up to four, but even during the afternoon match, I felt like I was behind almost the whole back nine because she had all the momentum,” said Shepherd.
Clinging to a slim lead on the uphill par-5 14th, Shepherd saw Chang knock her approach within 10 feet for birdie and a possible deadlock. From just under 50 yards away, Shepherd went to her strength, a lob-wedge shot that stopped just behind the hole, 3 feet away. Chang missed, Shepherd made her birdie, and the rally was stifled.
“I love match play,” said Shepherd, who trailed in five of her six matches this week and played a total of 155 holes, including stroke play. “I grew up playing other sports, so taking that competitive edge and putting it in golf, that just really helped me this week.”
For Chang, the putt that slipped just below the hole on No. 14 was a familiar sight for the day.
“I think compared to yesterday, my putting wasn’t quite there,” said Chang. “A lot of them, I think just speed and alignment was the problem today. They were just at the end, just curving on me. My caddie, Connor [Fitzgerald], he was a tremendous help for me. He said, keep it going, don’t stop, and I just kept fighting on until the end.”
That end came on No. 16, where Shepherd finally solved that par-3 riddle by busting a 5-iron to within 12 feet on the 194-yard hole. She completed a two-putt par for the victory.
“I’m really proud of Erica,” said Chang. “She’s one of my best friends, and it’s a fun match with her. I mean, there’s that intensity, but it’s fun.”
After all of the distractions, the day became fun for Shepherd once she got her pep talk from Chang and stepped onto the first tee.
“I was definitely down before that, but as soon as I got on the tee, I was looking at the trophy, and I’m like, I have a chance to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior today, so I’m not going to let any of that get in the way,” said Shepherd.
She didn’t, and now her name will join that of a very dear friend on the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy.
The two finalists earn exemptions into the 117th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship Aug. 8-13 at San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista, Calif. Provided they remain age-eligible, all quarterfinalists are exempt from qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Poppy Hills Golf Course, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (July 16-21).
The U.S. Girls’ Junior is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.