USGA Women's Amateur: Story of an Unreal Comeback

Roswell, Ga. (August 3, 2005) -– When the match-play pairings officially became available Tuesday night, Sara Prange said she nearly threw up. The nausea wasn’t caused from food or her daughter’s performance during the stroke-play qualifying portion of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek Course.

There it stood in big, bold letters for the 12:25 p.m. starting time: Amber Prange, Noblesville, Ind., vs. Paige Mackenzie, Yakima, Wash. This might not look like such a big deal to the casual observer, but for these two competitors it was Wednesday’s worst possible opening-round match-up.

Prange, 20, and Mackenzie, 22, are teammates at the University of Washington – the former a junior-to-be and the latter a fifth-year senior – and both were hoping to avoid seeing each other during the early match-play rounds.

Such match-ups, bizarre as they might seem, have been quite common recently in USGA amateur competitions. At the 2003 Women’s Amateur, future Oklahoma State teammates Ashley Knoll and Mallorie Underwood met in the second round (Knoll has since transferred to Texas A&M). Last year, Auburn sophomore Nicole Hage faced future teammate Margaret Shirley in round two. And at the 2005 U.S. Amateur Public Links, Florida teammates and roommates for that championship, Matt Every and Duke Butler IV, squared off in the first round.

“My first thought was, ‘I don’t want to play Amber because she is one of the toughest competitors that I have ever seen,’ ” said Mackenzie. “Second, I want to see her do well and I want to do well and so it would have been nice to meet somewhere in the semis. It’s just one of those things.”

It turned out to be a match that neither will soon forget. Mackenzie trailed Prange, 6 down, at the turn but rallied for a dramatic 19-hole victory, winning the last three holes of regulation and then taking the 19th hole – the par-5 first – when Prange three-putted from 25 feet, the last miss from 5 feet. It was Prange’s second three-putt green in the final four holes, which opened the door on the back nine for a Mackenzie rally.

Mackenzie, an NCAA honorable-mention All-American this past season, only made two birdies in her rally, holing a 3-footer at 10 for her first win of the match, and then draining a 12-footer at 18 to extend the match after ripping a drive to within 78 yards of the flag. Her sand-wedge approach stopped just beyond the flag, but she felt confident standing over the putt.

“I knew exactly where to put it and I felt so good over it,” said Mackenzie. “It was the only one I had all day that I really felt I was going to make.”

Early on, Mackenzie did not look like the player who finished tied for 13th at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open (third-low amateur) and had just won the Women’s Trans-National in Southern Pines, N.C., with an 8-and-7 win over first-team NCAA All-American Liz Janangelo in the final match.

Prange jumped out to a 4-up lead after four holes, as Mackenzie double-bogeyed one and three-putted the third hole 9 feet. In between, Prange holed a 4-footer for birdie at the 312-yard second hole and made another 3-footer at the par-5 fourth. Even when Prange sent her tee shot into the water on the par-3 fifth, Mackenzie could not take advantage of the miscue. The two halved the hole with bogey-4s. By the ninth hole, Mackenzie could have started thinking about next week’s North and South Women’s Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C.

But Sara Prange wasn’t about ready to claim victory for her daughter. “This is match play and things can happen,” she said, walking up the 10th fairway. She was almost in shock that Amber was up by this huge margin, knowing the caliber of player Mackenzie is. Sure enough, Mackenzie made birdie at 10 with a gorgeous wedge approach to 3 feet and the game was back on.

“She played better on the back and I stopped playing the course and I started worrying more about what she was doing and I can’t do that in match play,” said Prange. “I am pretty disappointed in myself, but you can only learn from your mistakes.

“She’s a great player and I am really proud of her. I never gave up, I just let myself get out of it.”

On 11, Prange’s approach shot found the water for another lost hole. At 14, she missed short and left with her approach and then couldn’t convert a long par putt while Mackenzie two-putted from 13 feet. It now was three down with five to play. At 16, Prange thought she had the line and speed right for her 21-foot downhill putt, but the ball rolled 10 feet past the hole. The three-putt bogey made Mackenzie’s 6-footer for birdie a lot less pressure-packed. She would two-putt to go 2 down.

Prange’s 6-iron tee shot on 17 sailed right to a tough spot between the green and rough. Her putt from the fringe rolled 12 feet by and again she failed to convert the par effort. Mackenzie two-putted from the fringe to set up the dramatic finish. Amber Prange offers her congratulations to UW teammate Paige Mackenzie after their 19-hole marathon. (Steve Gibbons/USGA)

“I knew if I got it to three, I would have put a little pressure on her,” said Mackenzie, who hosted Prange on her recruiting visit back in 2002. “Three [down] is manageable. Six is a little harder. Once I got it to three, I had a good chance.”

For Mackenzie, it put another notch in her competitive résumé in terms of making the 2006 USA Curtis Cup team. After making the birdie on 10, she noticed USA captain Carol Semple Thompson, which could have been a spark of inspiration for Mackenzie. The Match is scheduled to be played next July in Bandon, Ore., at Bandon Dunes Resort, which is not far where her father, Hugh, grew up (Reedsport) in southwestern Oregon.

She was also motivated watching her older brother Brock play the 2003 Walker Cup in England (Ganton Golf Club) as she was coming back from a back injury that sidelined her 10 months and forced her to redshirt for the 2002-03 season (sophomore year). The pain was caused by a bi-lateral stress fracture and a bulging disk. Surgery wasn’t required, but Mackenzie went through two athletic trainers at Washington, three doctors, two chiropractors and one physical therapist before she finally found someone who could alleviate the pain. That person was Donna Bajelis, a registered physical therapist who specializes in deep-tissue massages. Bajelis came on a recommendation from her doctors and someone her parents played golf with at their home club.

The only catch was that Bajelis lived four hours away in the tiny north-central Washington town of Twisp.

“At that point I was willing to try anything,” said Mackenzie. “The first session I knew [it was right].”

Initially, the visits, which began in late July of 2003, were twice a month before she eventually eased back as the pain subsided. She played her first round of golf in September of 2003 while in England watching Brock and returned to the team for the 2003-04 season. But it wasn’t until her junior season (2004-05) when things got somewhat back to normal. She still does alignment exercises daily for her back and this week is taking anti-inflammatory pills to prevent any flare-ups. But more importantly, the nerve pain is completely gone and she feels 100 percent.

“I haven’t seen her in a year,” said Mackenzie, who actually played eight months with the injury during her freshman season before shutting it down. “It’s the best I’ve been in the last four years.”

But who knows how agonizingly difficult it was for her parents and coaches back in Washington who were following her match. “I know my mom got nothing done at work today watching this on her computer,” said Mackenzie.

It had to be a weird day for the Husky coaching staff, but one that would end with one player advancing. Even a few members of the gallery were yelling “Go Huskies!” as the match reached its late stages.

Prange and Mackenzie chatted a few times while waiting for the group in front to clear at one point discussing the sweat stains on their shirts while standing under a shaded tree on the sixth hole. They also shared a few laughs on the par-3 12th tee. The chatter subsided considerably as the two played the final few holes.

“No matter how good friends we are,” said Prange, “we are competitors and we want to win.”

Perhaps Prange will get that chance of redemption sometime in the future. She won’t have to go too far for a rematch.

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