What to watch for this week at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur

This week, for the fourth time in five years, the best amateur women’s players in the world will descend upon Augusta, Georgia, ahead of the fourth installment of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

In just a short period of time, the ANWA has become a premier showcase of the abundance of talent in the women’s amateur game and one of the most anticipated events of the golf season. From 16-year-olds ready to win to a deep international field to viral bucket hats and the best amateur player in the world, this event has plenty of returning players and a plethora of storylines.

Here are a few that we’re looking forward to.

Can Anna Davis be the first to defend her title?

The girl with the bucket hat is back, and she is prepared to defend her surprising win at last year’s event when she was 16 years old. Davis admitted earlier this week in her news conference that, although being familiar with the tournament and the courses (the first two rounds are played at nearby Champions Retreat) will be helpful this time around, the loss of some naivete about the entire experience might be a challenge.

“Going into last year I didn’t really know any of the history, I didn’t know much about it, and I think that gave me an advantage on the field, just not really feeling the pressure of being at Augusta National,” Davis said. “I think it’s a little different this year, because now the spotlight is going to be on me playing on that golf course. So I think it might be a little of a disadvantage, but I don’t think I can let it get in my head.”

Davis spoke to the media last week from her room at Champions Retreat, where she stayed and practiced before the tournament. The timing was fortunate. She was done with midterms during her first year at Auburn and heading into spring break, allowing her time to practice at the course where she will need to perform well twice to make it to the final round at Augusta National.

“I think it’s overlooked in the media how hard this golf course is,” Davis said “It’s mentally very challenging to play this golf course, knowing that you have to play well here just to get to play Augusta on the final day. There’s just not a single hole on this golf course that you can lose focus on.”

From being a junior golfer and one of the youngest at last year’s tournament to sounding like a seasoned veteran, life has come at Davis pretty fast since she won the ANWA and became a viral sensation for her bucket hat. It hasn’t affected her performance, however. The eighth-ranked amateur golfer in the world is coming off a win at the Sage Valley Junior Invitational, a top-five finish at the Dustin Johnson World Junior and a win at the Junior Orange Bowl Invitational.

Davis said she had discussions about turning pro after playing in some LPGA events last year, but she ultimately decided it wasn’t the time and that she wanted to experience college, too.

“At the end of the day I decided I needed more experience in different situations, you know different kinds of pressure situations,” Davis said. “I’ve never really had that before where I have to win, or I have to make a putt to win. Or I have to come back and win, stuff like that made me decide that I needed more experience in the amateur side of golf. And you know, have a life for a few years outside of golf.”

As for this year’s title defense, Davis did say she’ll have her bucket hat in tow, but her mood will determine whether she wears it. One thing she will not be having regardless of her mood? Pimento cheese sandwiches.

“I know the pimento cheese is a really big thing,” Davis said with a laugh, “but I just can’t get over how gross it is.”

Is the fourth time the charm for Rose Zhang?

All eyes are on Rose Zhang — and for good reason. The top amateur player in the world is in only her second year at Stanford, but at 19 years old, her résumé can already fill a small book.

Zhang won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2020, the U.S. Girls Junior championship in 2021 as well as both the team and individual NCAA championships in 2022. Her individual accolades include winning the McCormick Medal (the top amateur in the world) three different times, the ANNIKA award (top women’s amateur) twice as well as a slew of other Pac-12 honors.

She has also made the cut at all four majors she has appeared in, including a T-11 finish at the Chevron Championship in 2020. You get the point. Zhang isn’t just good — she has won nearly everything possible as an amateur. Except the ANWA.

In three appearances at the tournament, Zhang has finished tied for 17th, tied for third and tied for 12th. She has performed well, but it’s a testament to the depth of the field (and the sport as a whole) that she has yet to win at this event.

It’s unclear how many more times Zhang will play at this event — she opted to return to school after her freshman year and doesn’t appear to be in a rush to turn professional. But it’s also hard to imagine her having a better shot the way she’s playing. Zhang has finished first in six of her past seven events. There’s no doubt she’s ready for the pro game, but adding a win at ANWA to her extensive résumé would be the fitting crown jewel on top of her dominant amateur career.

Don’t forget about Ingrid Lindblad

While Zhang might be the focus of many, a 23-year-old from Sweden playing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, should garner attention, too. No one with multiple appearances at ANWA has played more consistently than Ingrid Lindblad.

In 2021, Lindblad tied with Zhang and her Stanford teammate Rachel Heck for third, one stroke behind the leaders (Japan’s Tsubasa Kajitani went on to beat Emilia Migliaccio in a playoff). During last year’s tournament, the LSU senior fell one stroke short of Davis and finished tied for second.

Despite the loss, the result seemed to fuel her for the rest of the season. Two weeks after ANWA, Lindblad won the SEC title and finished third in the NCAA championships. Then, she went to the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles and proceeded to hover around the top of a leaderboard filled with the game’s best pros throughout the week. She ended up finishing 11th but took home the tournament’s 18-hole amateur record as well as a host of new fans of her game and affable demeanor on the podium.

“I don’t think I ever realized what happened,” Lindblad said a day after breaking the record at the U.S. Open in June. “I don’t think I realize how big it is. It’s like whenever you come to a big amateur tournament, like when I played Augusta for the first time last year, I was like, I didn’t realize how big this is until you get there and all the attention you get.”

The attention hasn’t stopped for Lindblad, because she has only continued to play better. Since being in the U.S. Open spotlight, the LSU Tiger who — as her coach said, famously ordered baby back ribs on her recruiting visit — has had seven top-10 finishes and one win. It all led to her becoming the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world and one of the names to watch as she gets another crack at adding the ANWA title to her amateur career.

International talent, homegrown stars

Beyond Lindblad, the crop of international players in this year’s field at Augusta is stellar and deep. More than half of the players in the field — 41 of 72 to be exact — are from outside the United States, led by 10 players from Japan, the most from any country in the event’s short history.

Japan’s Tsubasa Kajitani returns to ANWA after a one-year hiatus. The then-17-year-old won the 2021 tournament in a playoff despite not having a single win over two years heading into the event. But perhaps the biggest name from Japan is 17-year-old Saki Baba, who is fresh off winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur last year at Chambers Bay in dominating fashion. Baba took down her opponent 11 and 9 in the final match thanks to aggressive approach play and the good old-fashioned strategy of making every single putt.

Baba is a star in the making and even though she’s likely to set her sights on the professional game sooner or later, a much-anticipated ANWA appearance for the teen from Tokyo could see her lifting the trophy by Sunday.

On the American side, one could bet on any of the members of the winning 2022 Curtis Cup team. All members of the team that includes Zhang received invites to the tournament. Zhang’s teammate Rachel Heck will not be able to compete because of a shoulder injury, but standouts like USC sophomore Amari Avery (who finished tied for fourth last year and is No. 9 in the world), Stanford freshman Megha Ganne, Wake Forest’s Rachel Kuehn (No. 4 in the world) and the aforementioned Migliaccio all have the talent to be at the top of the leaderboard this week.

Then again, if this tournament has shown anything so far, it’s that the favorites don’t usually end up winning and underdogs have just as good an opportunity to make a run. Between Kajitani and Davis (who was ranked 100th going into last year’s ANWA), the door will once again be wide open for any player in the field to stitch together three great rounds of golf and come out on top.

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