Ainhoa Olarra rides fire and emotion through ANWA playoff
Ainhoa Olarra with caddie Kalen Anderson (ANWA photo)
Ainhoa Olarra with caddie Kalen Anderson (ANWA photo)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ainhoa Olarra spent much of her day asking for guidance, preferably in the form of birdies, from above. The fiery Spaniard is emotional in a way that helped her channel her best golf on Thursday at Champions Retreat Golf Club, but not in a way that brought tears.

She had only good memories and tributes for her late countrywoman Celia Barquin Arozamena, who was tragically killed in September while playing golf in her adopted hometown of Ames, Iowa. On Tuesday, Olarra had a bit of gratitude, too. Barquin Arozamena sent the birdies, Olarra believed, that ultimately got her a spot on Saturday’s tee sheet at Augusta National.

Olarra and Barquin Arozamena crossed paths while growing up in Spain, competing in the summer and rooming together on the road. Olarra thinks that if Barquin Arozamena had been here for this inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, she would have wanted to play it despite the fact that she was actively working toward a professional career.

Barquin Arozamena talked about the tournament. She was interested in improving her World Amateur Golf Ranking to the point that she could receive an invitation. Olarra felt her here on Thursday.

“I made a lot of putts, and I think that part of it was Celia sending me help,” she said. “I really believe that.”

Olarra was effectively the last woman into the final round after advancing through a two-hole, 11-for-10 playoff on Thursday evening. She and Alessia Nobilio made bogey on the par-4 10th, and had to go head-to-head on the par-3 17th. Olarra came out ahead with a birdie there, off a 30-foot putt.

Olarra is the only nine-to-fiver in the field. At 24, she is also the oldest. She spent a good portion of the day freewheeling it around Champions Retreat Golf Club. Olarra hasn’t played competitively in eight months and turned down tournament invitations. The reality is that Olarra is too competitive not to play this event.

During a back-up on the par-3 sixth, Olarra joked with caddie Kalen Anderson, her former coach at the University of South Carolina, that Anderson should just hit the shot instead. These are not just early retirement vibes, Anderson said. These are Olarra vibes. At the start of the week, Anderson wasn’t sure what state her player’s game would be in, knowing how little she has played lately.

“I figured it would be a little rustier than it was. It’s not that rusty, it’s pretty darn good,” Anderson said. “She just doesn’t have the length she quite had before, things like that.”

As an auditor based out of Deloitte’s Madrid offices, Olarra finds herself working as many as 10 hours a day and sometimes on weekends. Asked to describe her position, she made a triangle with her fingers, then pointed to the bottom.

“I am here,” she said.

That won’t change even if she were to win it all at Augusta National on Saturday (though she’d have to overcome an eight-shot deficit to do that). Olarra confirmed Thursday that she is committed to her day job, and the more normal life that it affords her.

It has been a good week back in the Gamecock trenches, catching up with Anderson on the course and seeing the team in the few days leading up to the tournament.

Given the carrot of competing on Augusta National on Saturday (remember that the entire field plays a practice round there tomorrow), there were way more eyes on the playoff than on the top of the leaderboard on Thursday. Olarra became something of a hero. She is easy to like.

“She’s fun to be around,” said Anderson, who actively helped with club selection and green reading. Her final message to Olarra was often “trust it.” The tiny Spaniard isn’t particularly long, but she scored when she needed to. She pumped her coach’s arm so hard after a final par on No. 18 that she nearly pulled it off.

Her friend would be proud – of both the play and the enthusiasm.

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