The second ANWA will still be magical, even as players bring new expectations

Several amateur golfers look ahead of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur April 1-4 at Augusta National Golf Club.

A year ago, Augusta National was uncharted territory for women, at least competitively. When a 72-player Augusta National Women’s Amateur field returns there this year, the stakes will be undeniably different – it can never again be the first time.

Allyson Geer-Park has chewed on this idea. The Michigan State senior goes back to something that head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll often tells her Spartans.

“My coach talks about legacies and what we’re doing here,” Geer-Park said. “The reason we’re able to do what we’re doing is because of the people before us.”

On Tuesday, Augusta National released a list of 65 confirmed entries for the second annual ANWA. Among the 65 confirmed entries, 27 are ANWA returners, including Geer-Park.

Viewers of last year’s ANWA final may not remember Geer-Park’s name to the extent they remember winner Jennifer Kupcho’s and runner-up Maria Fassi’s. The 21-year-old Brighton, Michigan native missed the second-round cut for a chance to compete at Augusta National (though she did take part in a practice round there, like the rest of the field), but for Saturday’s final round, she made sure she walked in the gallery.

Everything Geer-Park does in April when she plays the ANWA for the second time (and likely the last, considering that she’s eyeing a pro career post-college) will build on this event for the next generation. While Geer-Park walked Augusta during last year’s final round (along with many of the other players who had fallen short of the cut), she thought of the middle- and high-school players watching at home who will someday be invited to play the event.

“It was definitely still incredible,” she said, “but also I think a really cool opportunity to see and to sting me a little bit that I wasn’t playing as well, but still to realize that it was bigger than just me. To be there supporting those women I had played golf with a long time.

“I don’t think there’s many times in your life where you’re aware that the best thing that is ever going to happen to you, is happening to you.”

Geer-Park took mental notes that day about how Kupcho and Fassi attacked Augusta. She had husband Nick Park (the two were married in 2018) on the bag but this year, she’s already put in for an Augusta National caddie. Most of all, she’s prepared to run the Champions Retreat gauntlet, where the first two rounds are played, better than last year. She brought a signature draw that didn’t suit the sneaky-hard layout and knows this year that you can’t overlook that test (new players, take note).

“I’m prepared to play those two days the best I can so I can go to Augusta,” she said. “The difference this year is focusing on that first course and devoting all my energy to that.”

Geer-Park, she was among the final Americans to be selected based on her World Amateur Golf Ranking position. That’s daunting in itself.

The prospect of falling outside the magic bubble of the top-30 ranked Americans had Erica Shepherd, another returner, so flustered that she felt she could only relax about it once her dad had run every possible scenario.

“My coaches will tell you that I probably worried a little too much about rankings this fall,” she said.

Erica Shepherd of Greenwood, Indiana was named to the 2019 Rolex Junior Boys All-Americans first team. (American Junior Golf Association)

Shepherd, a big goal setter and determined competitor, is halfway through her freshman season at Duke. She made all four starts with the team in the fall.

Shepherd had her tonsils out over the holidays and spent her recuperation time re-watching the final-round broadcast. It got “the determination juices flowing.” She had goosebumps.

Shepherd played in that final round, nine groups ahead of Kupcho and Fassi. She was 1 under on the front and her name was on the leaderboard. She calculated a yardage incorrectly on her second shot at the par-5 15th and left it in the water. She made double there and followed it with two bogeys to finish with 75. She finished T-23.

“I think that I had my dream of playing in Augusta, being one of the first females to ever do that and then now, after watching Kupcho and Fassi in the final group, just seeing the impact that had on the game, being in that position in myself over the next four years…that’s the dream now,” she said.

While seven spots in the field remain unknown, there are a handful of players who qualified based on their ranking – or an exemption category – who remain conspicuously missing. Rose Zhang, Kaitlyn Papp, Angelina Ye and Gabriela Ruffels are among that group. A handful of amateurs are traditionally invited to the ANA Inspiration, the first LPGA major of the season. It overlaps the ANWA.

Amateur invitations to the ANA have not yet been confirmed.

The Sydney Herald confirmed Tuesday that Ruffels, who automatically qualified for the ANWA as the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, will play the ANA.

“Yeah it was a really tough decision, but I think we all decided ANA would be the best,” Ruffels told the Herald.

“I’m only getting the ANA start because I won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and it’s a rare opportunity; they don’t give out exemptions to anyone at majors.”

Ruffels, a junior at USC, also noted that her parents lived close to Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California, where the ANA will be played. She also said she wanted to remain amateur for the next two years, long enough to finish her degree in Los Angeles.

Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi walk across the Hogan Bridge on the 12th hole during the Augusta National Women’s Amateur at Augusta National. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Rachel Heck knows something about that decision. The Memphis, Tennessee-based high school senior, who is headed to Stanford next fall, ultimately chose the ANA Inspiration last year. She approached the decision from the perspective that neither tournament could be the “wrong” choice.

“I was hoping, with where my ranking was, that I would get to go back and play Augusta the next year,” she said. “So of course Augusta was hard to turn down but ANA is a very unique, special opportunity that I definitely couldn’t turn down.

“I have no regrets for choosing ANA that first year.”

As a result, Heck spent part of the week in the players’ lounge, watching the broadcast with LPGA players (who she remember were similarly glued to the TV). She’ll never forget watching Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi cross the Hogan bridge to No. 12 green – a familiar Masters scene for any golf fan.

“That’s the picture I’ve seen my whole life, I’ve drawn that for school projects – freshman art project,” she said. “That was what I idealized in my mind.”

The invitation she received from Augusta went up on the Heck family mantle this month when the Christmas decorations came down.

In all the post-tournament conversations with friends who did play Augusta, Heck can’t remember green speeds or shot-making coming up once.

“They just said, ‘You have to be there.’”

Heck didn’t need to be in Augusta last year to know that.

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