Chen, Olarra buck trend of what it means to be an am at ANWA
Alice Chen during an ANWA practice round (ANWA image)
Alice Chen during an ANWA practice round (ANWA image)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – At 23, Alice Chen feels ancient in an event designed to celebrate the up-and-coming talent in women’s golf. She is nine years older than the youngest competitor at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, 14-year-old Alexa Pano, but she is here quite deliberately.

For all the backgrounds and personalities represented in the 72-woman field, the trajectories are relatively the same. There are world beaters here, and the end game is clearly the LPGA tour. The ANWA is an amateur event in name, but amateur golf represents something different for different people. For Chen, it’s a passageway.

“Amateur golf is an intermediate step between where a little girl is and where professional women are,” Chen explained Tuesday, on the eve of the championship.

On the cusp of turning professional, she frankly admits that she was never particularly attached to playing Augusta National. Chen is here for the little girls watching at home.

“That’s tangible for me,” she said.

The pull must have been strong considering that Chen graduated from Furman nearly a year ago and has remained amateur this long solely to play the ANWA. When the event was created a year ago, her chances of qualifying by her position in the World Amateur Golf Ranking looked mathematically sound. But as more college events dropped out of the 104-week rankings window, and she underperformed in the Canadian Women’s Amateur and North & South Women’s Amateur over the summer, her stock fell.

In the end, she slipped in as one of the final players who qualified by ranking.

Chen, like every other woman here, will be part of history, and that’s appealing to her. This will be her last amateur event. She has already earned Symetra Tour status by competing in LPGA Q-School this summer as an amateur.

She wasn’t a highly-sought after junior player, nor was she one of those little girls with a lifelong dream to play professionally. Furman coaches cultivated that during her time as part of a historically layered program that counts Betsy King, Dottie Pepper and Beth Daniel as alums.

Chen is a woman of strong faith and a player who likes (and needs) a platform. At Furman, she held a leadership role in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. For that, she was awarded the Dinah Shore trophy at the end of 2018.

“It’s not one of those things where you go into college and say, ‘I want this award, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it,'” Chen said. “It wasn’t an award for me being the best.”

Regardless, it came with a $10,000 grant to the Furman program, which went toward a team TrackMan. In that way, Chen lives on in Greenville, S.C., even though something says lives touched also plays into her legacy there.

Chen’s personality makes her gravitate toward people. Her psychology degree was born of a curiosity in people, and she rolls her eyes (albeit politely) when someone asks if it helps her keep a level head on the golf course. Far from it, she insists. Chen has struggled with her mental game, but this gap year has helped her gain perspective.

In that way, Chen has good company in Ainhoa Olarra. The two brushed shoulders on a cold practice-round day at Champions Retreat Golf Club. Within 30 seconds, the bubbly Chen had made a friend – even if she did start the conversation by calling Olarra, one year her senior, a grandmother.

Olarra, the only other college graduate in the field, likely won’t see this stage again. After graduating from South Carolina last spring, the Spaniard returned to Madrid and took up full-time work as an auditor for Deloitte. She finds it hard to juggle that career with golf, working 10-hour days and sometimes working on the weekends, too.

Priorities are priorities, but for the feisty Spaniard, it was a no-brainer to play the ANWA (even though she turned down the World Amateur Team Championship in the fall). Olarra took a week and a half break from work, phoned her old coach at South Carolina to caddie and spent the past week training and reconnecting with her team.

“It’s just the course, the tournament,” she explained. “Say Augusta, and even people who don’t play golf know what you’re talking about. That doesn’t happen every day.”

There is a long silence when asked if this is it for Olarra, golf-wise. At the level Olarra is used to, “it’s hard to be normal” and remain competitive. Only Augusta could pull her out of early retirement.

The similarities among competitors are hard to miss this week, even as they bring different experiences and priorities to the table. In this world, Augusta – and the platform it creates – is a universal currency, around which life decisions are based.

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