Albane Valenzuela fist bumps her caddie/brother in celebration (USGA/Steve Gibbons)
Above all, Albane Valenzuela knew she’d get a fair match out of Sierra Brooks. Everyone else knew it would be a must-watch.
Brooks and Valenzuela – who will be seniors at Florida and Stanford, respectively, in the fall – have done this U.S. Women’s Amateur dance many times. Both have been the runner-up in this event. Brooks did it in 2015, while Valenzuela did it in 2017.
Ultimately, Valenzuela will have a shot at doing it again – or perhaps going one match further this time. The Swiss player came out ahead in Wednesday’s most epic first-round match at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss. She capitalized on the few mistakes Brooks made and advanced with a 2-and-1 victory.
“She's a good friend, so you never want to play against a friend, and she's an unbelievable player, so I knew it was going to be a very tough match right off the bat,” said Valenzuela. “But that's what can happen with match play. You get a draw, you have to play against a teammate, fellow competitors. I think we both gave a really good fight. We both missed out there, but we both also made some really good golf shots. It was a good match, and happy to get off with a win.”
Brooks and Valenzuela got top billing on Wednesday, but there were plenty of other hard-fought matches on the bracket. Two early surprises at Old Waverly included Emily Hawkins’ defeat of co-medalist Jiarui Jin, who drew the No. 1 seed. Hawkins, who will be a sophomore at Campbell, won with two holes to spare.
“I just felt like I had nothing to lose,” said Hawkins, the first player in Big South Conference history to garner Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors. “Just go out there and play my best and see what happens, hit some fairways and then try to roll in a few putts.”
Two matches farther down, UCLA grad Bethany Wu suffered a surprising rout at the hands of Bentley Cotton, an Austin native and University of Texas commit. She defeated Wu, a former quarterfinalist in this event, 6 and 4.
In a battle of the up-and-comers, Duke sophomore Gina Kim lost to 15-year-old Megha Ganne. Both played the U.S. Women’s Open in June under some amount of fanfare. Ganne was among the youngest players in the field, and Kim was the low amateur.
Even though Jin fell, the other co-medalist, Alexa Pano, is still alive and advancing. She defeated Remington Isaac, 5 and 4, early then retired to the practice facilities to work on her short game, despite the oppressive Mississippi heat.
“This heat is pretty insane, and the humidity is crazy. But I’m trying not to focus on it too much. But definitely I'm feeling it out there,” she said.
Japan’s Rino Sasaki, winner of last month’s Pacific Northwest Women’s Amateur, took down newly minted U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Lei Ye.
On the bottom of the bracket, a pair of dramatic matches stretched into the evening. Texas player Kaitlyn Papp fought hard to take down Yuka Saso. Papp benefited from late birdies at Nos. 15 and 16. Saso matched her birdie at No. 17, but it was too late for the player who was a semifinalist at this tournament in 2016.
It was another highly anticipated match, perhaps for everyone but Papp.
“I try to treat every match the same, whether I'm playing [a well-known player] or someone I've never met before. I think it helps just to play it the same,” she reasoned afterward.
In one of the final matches off the course for the day, Australia’s Stephanie Kyriacou went 22 holes before falling to incoming Stanford freshman Brooke Seay.
Quotes and information from the USGA used in this report
ABOUT THE U.S. Women's Amateur
The U.S. Women's Amateur, the third
the USGA championships, was first played
at Meadowbrook Club in Hempstead, N.Y.
event is open to any female amateur who
USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 5.4.
Women's Amateur is one of 14 national
championships conducted annually by the
10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
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