Jensen Castle continued her remarkable run in Saturday's semifinals with a 19-hole win over Rachel Heck. (Darren Carroll/USGA)
Cinderella is still dancing at Westchester Country Club.
University of Kentucky junior Jensen Castle
, the No. 63 seed who survived a 12-for-2 playoff on Tuesday to advance to match play, eliminated world No. 2 and reigning NCAA champion Rachel Heck
in a 19-hole semifinal thriller on Saturday afternoon to earn a spot in Sunday’s 36-hole championship match of the 121st U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
Castle, 20, of West Columbia, S.C., will face another Wildcat, University of Arizona All-American Yu-Chiang (Vivian) Hou
, 20, of Chinese Taipei, for the right to add her name to the list of legends on the Robert Cox Trophy.
Hou, the 2020 Women’s Golf Coaches Association Freshman of the Year, outlasted Michigan State sophomore Valentina Rossi
, of Argentina, 2 up, in the other semifinal.
Should Castle prevail, she would be the third No. 63 seed to claim a USGA title, following Clay Ogden (2005 U.S. Amateur Public Links) and Steven Fox (2012 U.S. Amateur). She is the first University of Kentucky golfer to reach the final.
“I keep forgetting I'm the 63rd seed,” said Castle, who has battled a rib injury most of the summer. “I feel like seeds are irrelevant once you get into match play. It's everyone's game. I’m just glad that the doctor said I could play.”
Her championship-match opponent, Hou, is also recovering from an injury. A partially torn labrum in her left hip kept Hou from playing any competitive golf since the NCAAs concluded in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late May. But she is clearly rediscovering her rhythm, and is now the first Arizona golfer to reach the championship match since her head coach Laura (Myerscough) Ianello in 2000 at Waverly Country Club in Portland, Ore., where she lost to Marcy Newton, 8 and 7.
Heck, 19, of Memphis, Tenn., who was bidding to join Vicki Goetze (1992) as the only players to win the NCAA and U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in the same year, seemed poised to join her Pacific-12 Conference rival in the championship match. She held a 2-up lead through 15 holes after holing a 35-foot chip shot for birdie.
But after finding a greenside bunker on the par-3 16th that led to a bogey (Castle two-putted for a winning par), Heck suddenly found herself with a precarious 1-up lead with two to play. The two tied No. 17 and Heck reached the par-5 closing hole in regulation. With Castle in for par, Heck, who missed her birdie attempt, had a 4-footer for par to close out the match. Heck, a rising sophomore at Stanford University, pulled the putt badly for just her second bogey of the match.
“I thought for sure she won,” said Castle of Heck’s par putt on 18. “I couldn't believe she missed it. When I knew she gave me that opportunity I was like, ‘All right, I birdied [No. 10] earlier, I'm going to I birdie this again,’ and I went after it.”
With newfound life – and confidence – Castle, with the honor and added adrenaline, blistered a drive just short of the green and right of a greenside bunker on the 274-yard 19th hole. Heck slightly pulled her drive left of the green in the rough.
Playing first, Heck’s shot stopped 12 feet short of the flagstick. Castle, whose ball was in the intermediate cut, came up 15 feet short. It looked as if Heck had the upper hand. Laser-focused, Castle perfectly executed the birdie putt, but showed no emotion. Heck still had a chance to continue the match, but the ball hit the right-back portion of the hole and lipped out.
“It's tough, but, I mean, I played a good playoff hole,” said Heck, who is next headed to Wales to represent the USA on the Curtis Cup Team, Aug. 26-28. “She made the putt, and I don't know how I missed. It was a good roll.”
Hou, who briefly held the top spot in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR® before falling to her current position of 21, had not played the 17th and 18th holes since Tuesday’s final round of stroke play. That wouldn’t be the case against the left-handed Rossi, as it was a tight match throughout.
Hou took a 2-up lead with a 12-foot birdie on No. 10, but mistakes on Nos. 13 and 15 – she badly pulled her drive on the latter into the fescue leading to a double-bogey 6 – allowed Rossi to tie the match.
On No. 17, Rossi’s approach from the fairway sailed over the green into deep rough. Two shots later, she eventually conceded Hou’s par to go 1 down. On 18, Hou split the fairway but Rossi pushed her drive left. After punching out, Rossi hit her third shot just over the green. Seeing that her opponent faced a difficult fourth shot, Hou could have taken the conservative route by playing to the middle of the green. Instead, she took dead aim with a pitching wedge from 96 yards out, stopping the ball 5 feet from the flagstick.
When Rossi skulled her fourth and failed to hole her fifth, the Spartan conceded the hole and match.
“I'm not nervous, but I knew I couldn't do anything if it's because of my bad shot,” said Hou of her emotions coming down the stretch. “So I just try to focus more on my shot by shot and try to hit greens and then just get back to my normal routine.”
Sunday’s 36-hole championship match will begin at 8 a.m. EDT and resume after a midday break at approximately 1:30 p.m. Golf Channel has live coverage beginning at 2 p.m. ET.
Both finalists are exempt into the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Resort in Southern Pines, N.C., June 2-5. The champion also receives exemptions into the next 10 U.S. Women’s Amateurs, while the runner-up earns a three-year exemption.
Three tees were significantly moved up for the semifinals. The par-4 seventh, with one of the most challenging green complexes on the West Course, measured 285 yards, 24 yards shorter than the posted yardage. The par-4 10th hole played just 274 yards, up 28 yards from the regular yardage, and the par-3 16th played 23 yards shorter (168 yards).
Yu-Chiang (Vivian) Hou became the fourth University of Arizona golfer to advance to the championship match but is hoping to be the first to hoist the Robert Cox Trophy. Besides Laura (Myerscough) Ianello’s loss in 2000, Marisa Baena (1996) and Annika Sorenstam (1992) also lost in the 36-hole final.
Hou can be the third golfer from the University of Arizona to win a USGA title in 2021, joining Jim Furyk (U.S. Senior Open) and Sorenstam (U.S. Senior Women’s Open).
Ianello is planning to fly in from Arizona to watch the final. It was a promise she made to Hou after she made the quarterfinals.
A victory by Jensen Castle would guarantee her a spot on the 2021 USA Curtis Cup Team that will look to retain the cup in Wales Aug. 26-28. World No. 1 Rose Zhang, Rachel Heck and Allisen Corpuz were previously named as the top three Americans in WAGR. The rest of the eight-woman team is expected to be name in the coming days.
by David Shefter, USGA