Courtesy of the University of Kentucky
name will forever be inscribed on the Robert Cox Trophy as the winner of the 2021 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship but how her name became etched in sterling silver in the first place is more than a mere footnote in the 121-year history of the tournament.
It’s a story in and of itself and one that will soon not be forgotten.
The native of West Columbia, S.C. headed to Westchester Country Club last August without any expectations and as things turned out, without enough clothes or golf balls, either. Nursing a painful rib injury that limited her preparation heading into the tournament, Castle didn’t expect her stay in New York to be a long one. In fact, she only booked her hotel room for three nights and slept on a mattress at a friend’s house in Greenwich, Conn. for the remainder of the tournament.
She had to survive a 12-for-2 playoff just to get to the match play portion of the event, which was quite an accomplishment given her fragile state of health and lack of preparation.
“Heading into the Westchester, I couldn’t swing a club without pain in my ribs,” said Castle. “But once I got into match play, it only hurt when I walked and breathed. Weird.”
As the No. 63 seed, Castle preceded to down Kennedy Pedigo
, Sophie Linder
, Jenny Bae
and Emily Mahar
to set up a semifinal match with her good friend Rachel Heck
, the world’s second-ranked female amateur and reigning NCAA individual champion.
Castle would find herself two holes down to Heck with three to play, but a win on hole 16 kept the match alive. After the players halved the 17th hole, Heck remained one up heading to the par-5 18th. With Castle in with a par, Heck missed her birdie attempt and was left with a 4-footer to close out the match. She pulled it badly and it was onto extra holes.
“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.”
And that she did, rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt to put the pressure on Heck to make her 12-footer. When Heck’s putt hit the back portion of the hole and lipped out, Castle was onto the finals – and the pro shop to buy some more balls.
Her opponent in the championship match was Vivian Hou
of the University of Arizona, the former No. 1 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. Hou led 2-up after the first 18 holes but Castle came out red-hot following the break, winning three of the first four holes with birdies and adding a fourth win with a par on the 26th hole to take a 2-up lead. She extended her lead to three with a par on the 29th hole and eventually closed out the match by making a 9-foot birdie putt on the 35th hole.
As improbable as it once seemed, Cinderella had her trophy.
In our latest installment of “A Quick Nine,” the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion shares her thoughts about her week at Westchester Country Club, how she deals with pressure and her interests outside of golf, which includes producing a forthcoming podcast on women’s collegiate golf.
A Quick Nine with Jensen Castle
What’s like been like for you since you won the U.S. Women’s Amateur?
It’s been crazy. The USGA told me after I won my life would be changed forever and it definitely changed a lot since August. A lot of people are more familiar with me and my story than I ever would have thought. For example, I was dropping off something at the golf course the other day and I guy came up to me out of the blue just to say hi. I was a bit caught off guard that he even knew who I was because I wasn’t in golf clothes. I think a lot more people are familiar with my name than knowing who I am. It’s been crazy but very special.
When did it hit you about what you accomplished that week at Westchester?
Actually, only in the last few weeks. It didn’t hit me right away because I was so busy heading into the golf season at Kentucky and getting ready for school. It’s every girl’s dream to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur and I did it. It just didn’t seem real knowing my story and what I had to go through to get to that point. It was so surreal. Even when they handed me the trophy I couldn’t believe it was over. I was ready to go play another round.
What were your expectations heading into the week?
I didn’t even pick up a club for two weeks before the tournament, so I had no expectations whatsoever. I got a lesson a few days before and I was in so much pain (rib) that we had to stop. My teacher said it might be a good thing just to go to the tournament without any expectations and just play because he thought I played better when I was the underdog. I was just enjoying the experience day-by-day and sleeping on a pullout mattress at a friend’s house.
Where was your pain threshold on a scale of 1-10?
Heading into the tournament, it really hurt to swing a club but during the first round of match play, it only hurt to breathe and walk. But at least I could swing without pain. It was a good problem to have, I guess. Sort of the less of two evils. The pain threshold was about a 7-8 while I was walking but I was fine when I swung the club. I walked 60 miles that week and 158 holes, including practice rounds.
Did you feel more pressure in the 12-for-2 playoff to get to match play or in the final?
I didn’t feel any pressure in either situation because I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever. I like to think everything works out eventually. For example, I had a 12-foot putt on the last hole of stroke play, and I still don’t know how it didn’t go in. It ended up lipping out from the center of the cup. I couldn’t believe it. I walked off the green and my teammates told me I was in a 12-for-2 playoff and I said, ‘Let’s go. I’m good. That putt should have gone in and I shouldn’t be in this playoff.’
What did you learn about yourself that week at Westchester?
As humans, we learn a lot about ourselves and others every day. Going into the tournament, I never thought I was really strong at the mental side of the game and match play was always hard for me. After the U.S. Women’s Amateur, I learned so much about myself and how strong I could be mentally. I learned I had a real strong grit and mental toughness that has made me a better match play player.
Where’s the most unique place you’ve taken the Robert Cox Trophy?
Right now, it’s at our golf house at our practice facility but I’ll take it home this summer and probably leave it at my home course, Columbia Country Club. It hasn’t been to a lot of places but I did take it to a football game and took a picture with it on Kroger Field.
Catch us up on your fall season at Kentucky and your goals for the spring?
It was just average. I played in four tournaments, and I think combined I was around even. I just love being around my teammates, being on the road and learning new things as a team. Our main goal during the s is to understand this is a whole new year and we can’t be content with what we accomplished last season. We have to make sure we get better every day and focus on ourselves and the process. Individually, I don’t think I have any specific goals other than to continue to learn and focus on all of the little goals we have set as a team, like hitting a certain number of fairways. I’m very process orientated and I know if I take little steps during the process it will bring the desired result. I’m not getting too far ahead of myself. I’m just grateful I get to tee it up for the University of Kentucky every day.
Interests outside of golf?
I love working out, taking long walks. I’m super competitive so I like to play games whether it’s Uno or basketball. I’m also working on a podcast with Megan Furtney of Duke. We plan on discussing how different schools in the SEC and ACC vary and what factors determine where certain players go to school. A lot of people talk about how good certain programs are but they don’t talk about the process of getting there from a player’s perspective.