Maja Stark celebrating the putt that got her through the playoff
(Jennifer Stewart / Augusta National photo)
By Jordan Perez
It wasn’t Augusta yet, but Champions Retreat had its own set of familiar challenges in the first two rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
ANWA competitors spent some time trying to get cozy with Champions Retreat on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the Friday practice and final round Saturday visit to Augusta National.
But the 85 competitors never found any sort of comfort. Champions Retreat was anything but as early as Wednesday morning. Fast, firm greens and windy conditions proved quite the setup for the star-studded field - one who was faced with a suspension of play upon afternoon showers.
At the sound of the horn, only six players were under par, with day leader Katherine Smith
ahead of the field by a three-stroke margin at 4-under before stepping off of the 11th hole.
Mother nature wasn’t the only one bringing on the waterworks that afternoon: Smith’s strong lead wasn’t without a few tearful moments ahead of Augusta.
“I’ve cried off and on the past few weeks, just knowing I’m here. It’s probably the best moment of my life so far,” Smith told media after Wednesday’s conclusion of play. “Kind of everything to gain this week.”
Behind her, a five-way tie for second at 1-under. Two players watched carefully from the clubhouse: WAGR No. 1 Rose Zhang
and South Carolina’s Ana Pelaez
, while the chase for Smith’s place between the three remaining players on the back nine came to a halt.
“The wind played a role today, especially on the par 3s,” Pelaez told media, who found most of her success on par 5s, where she logged her two birdies in her first round.
Temperatures dropped - but so did the putts
The rain went away, but chills abounded on Thursday morning, both physically and mentally.
As competitors finished up delayed first rounds, the second round tee times coincided.
In sealing up her first round, conditions never fazed University of Houston sophomore Karen Fredgaard
, who rose to the top of the leaderboard at two-under 70 after sinking two birdies in a row - including a 20-footer on the 17th - for the lead.
Joining her was Linn Grant
, who capitalized on some rest before finishing her back nine to notch a birdie putt on the 18th to claim her own share of first, with another 70 beside Fredgaard for the books.
It wasn’t long before Zhang knocked each of them out for the second-round lead on a relatively calm front nine that would quickly develop into a rockier back nine.
Zhang held a solo lead with some early birdies before bogeys on the 14th and 18th gave her an even-par finish for the day.
Of course, the 17-year-old Stanford commit wasn’t met without company. LSU’s Ingrid Lindblad
showed up big on her last nine, making an excellent recovery from a double bogey foiled 9th hole. Her solution? Cleaning it up with four birdies.
The highlight second round came from Arizona State fifth-year Olivia Mehaffey
, who carded a 69 and rallied herself to a T3 finish. But the round wasn’t as graceful as the conclusion implies - Mehaffey’s bogey-free back nine wasn’t without a chaotic start. The Northern Ireland native pulled together just one par to calmly end her cluster of five birdies and three bogeys.
But it wasn’t a share of the lead that created the most tension: it was narrowing the rest of the field down to fit the six-over 30-player cut, FOUR strokes higher than 2019’s cut at Champions Retreat.
The 30th spot wasn’t granted to the player who performed saw their best on the par-410th in their past two rounds.
Nor was it given to the player who had the best birdie setup.
Instead, it was claimed by Oklahoma State’s Maja Stark
- who drained her best putt in the past 48 hours to earn her Augusta National tee time.
The sixth-ranked player on the World Amateur Golf Ranking faced Yu-Sang Hou
, Amari Avery
, Lauren Hartlage
and Smith for a chance to make Saturday.
Her two bogeys in the first two visits didn't exactly set the tone.
“It’s not my favorite hole,” Stark said, remarking on her bogeys carded in regulation.
Driven by what she specified as “revenge”, Stark’s intensity was immediately revealed from her quick pace off of her tee shot.
“I love when my pulse gets higher,” Stark said.
That energy converted into the 20-footer that sealed the fate of her week; and a dose of confidence, too.
“I felt like I hit a really good putt, so I was very happy with that,” she said.
“Good” is surely understating it. The second time ANWA competitor finished 25th in 2019, and now has an opportunity to show the world what two years have done.
Toughening up and looking ahead: What Friday and Saturday will bring
Friday’s practice round at Augusta National offers the 85-player field the chance to take in the hallowed grounds, regardless of their standing.
Those in contention will see that and much more.
For Zhang, it would solidify her place above her collegiate competitors - and show them another taste of what they’re tasked up against come her first Stanford fall.
For Lindblad, a second consecutive win for her already decorated amateur resume, and a chance to topple the rest of the powerful SEC.
However the empowering tale decides to end, it’ll provide another storybook finish to what’s arguably become the most championed event in women’s amateur golf.
The final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur will air on NBC Sports from noon to 3 p.m. EDT.