Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 3, 2022

In Victory And Defeat, One Timeless Lesson

On Saturday afternoon, 16-year-old Anna Davis walked off the 18th green at Augusta National, having just two-putted for par to finish a 3-under round of 69, pushing her to 1-under par for the 54 holes of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.  As she prepared to sign her scorecard, Davis assumed she would be settling for second place at a tournament which, because it is sponsored by and its final round played at perhaps the most famous private golf club in the world, has quickly achieved the goal Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley laid out when he announced plans for the tournament in 2018 – to bring more attention to women’s golf.  On the course where an invited few will compete for a green jacket and the title of major champion next weekend, Davis strung together three birdies over five holes in the middle of her round, starting as she finished the front nine.  She added another with an 8-iron from 145 yards over Rae’s Creek to 4 feet at the par-3 12th, and one more on the par-5 13th, then recorded steady pars the rest of the way home, enough to offset her 2-over total from the tournament’s first two rounds, played as always at the nearby Champions Retreat club.

But in contrast to Davis’s 34, the other five golfers in the final three groups combined to shoot 8-over par on Augusta National’s back nine.  Ingrid Lindblad, the number two ranked woman amateur in the world, found a fairway bunker off the tee at the 18th, came up short of the green from there, and couldn’t get up-and-down, a closing bogey that left her one adrift of Davis.  And 36-hole co-leader Latanna Stone, who had the championship in hand after a brilliant tee shot over the water at the par-3 16th left her with a tap-in birdie and a two-shot lead, came apart on the final two holes, finishing double-bogey, bogey.  When Stone’s 15-foot putt to save par at the last never scared the cup, Davis, a high school sophomore who only began competing in significant junior tournaments in the last year, had by far the most significant win of her fledgling golf career. 

It will be years before fans know how that career unfolds, though in her post-tournament press conference Davis made clear she has lofty goals, saying “I want to be the best in the world.”  That’s an ambition easy to dismiss as so much youthful exuberance, but it’s also true that no golfer ever rose to number one while secretly hoping to just be good enough to get by.  Davis happens to share a birthday with Augusta National founder Bobby Jones who, a half century after his death and more than ninety years after his last victories in golf’s majors, remains one of the sport’s seminal figures.  It was Jones who offered golfers of all abilities some timeless advice on the importance of mental toughness when he opined that the game “is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears.”  Her unflappable demeanor at the golfing cathedral that is Augusta National gave every indication that even as a teenager Davis understands the importance of Jones’s old admonition.  Still, in sports as in life, career paths are never certain.  Those who follow the women’s game were reminded of that just one day after Davis’s victory.

Across the continent from Augusta National and in front of a vastly smaller crowd than had watched Davis win, the final round of the Casino Del Sol Golf Classic, the fourth stop on this year’s schedule of the LPGA’s developmental Epson Tour, played out at Tucson’s Sewailo Golf Club.  Nineteen-year-old American Lucy Li began her last 18 just one shot behind Andrea Lee, a position that Li had managed to flip by the time there were four holes left to play.  Of course, just a few years ago, had fans somehow been magically apprised of that future state, they would have been surprised not by Li’s being on the brink of a victory, but to learn that it would be her first as a professional and be on the Epson Tour.

Li was a phenom as an amateur while still a child.  In 2013, months before her 11th birthday, she became the second-youngest qualifier in history for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links championship, and then the youngest to advance to the match play portion of the event.  Three months later she became the youngest ever qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur, and in 2014 the youngest to play in the U.S. Women’s Open, breaking Lexi Thompson’s 2007 record.  At the age of 14 she was the youngest golfer ever to make the cut at the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the season. 

But even as professional stardom seemed assured, Li was investigated and ultimately warned by the USGA for participating in a 2019 ad campaign for the Apple Watch.  It was an outcome that angered hardliners in the golf community, who believed that Li should have lost her amateur status simply because her marketing appearance was based on her exploits on the links.  Then just months after turning pro in late 2019, the coronavirus pandemic upended the entire sports world.  The LPGA shut down along with every other professional sports league, and when play eventually resumed, opportunities were more limited.

So it is that more than two years later, Lucy Li was playing in an Epson Tour event this weekend, where her lead proved short-lived.  After getting to 18-under, Li parred in, but a late birdie by Andrea Lee forced a playoff, which Lee won on the third hole of sudden death.  For the former child phenom, that first professional victory that once seemed so certain still awaits.

Amid the Apple Watch controversy, Li opted not to participate in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.  But it’s doubtful anyone was going to stop Jennifer Kupcho in 2019.  Then a senior at Wake Forest, the Colorado native blistered both courses, going 5-under over the two rounds at Champions Retreat and then matching that effort with a 67 at Augusta to win by four shots.  While the tournament has only been played three times, Kupcho’s 10-under total is the lowest finish by nine shots. 

Kupcho turned professional two months later, just before that year’s U.S. Women’s Open.  She had earned her LPGA card at the previous year’s qualifying tournament but deferred accepting it to complete her collegiate career.  Still, she too has had to deal with the uncertainty of her sport during the pandemic, and had yet to win as a pro.  Her amateur victory at Augusta in 2019 meant Kupcho missed the LPGA’s first major, as of this year renamed the Chevron Championship, a tournament that always includes several amateurs in its field.  But she made up for lost time this weekend, birdieing eight of the first twelve holes on Saturday on the way to a third-round 64 and a 6-shot lead.  Sunday evening in the California desert, a couple of hours after Li came up short in Arizona, Kupcho’s comfortable lead allowed her to play conservatively down the stretch on her way to a 2-shot victory that makes her not just a winner on the LPGA Tour, but also a major champion.

In the near term, the arc of Anna Davis’s golfing career may wind up mirroring Li’s, or Kupcho’s, or go off in its own direction.  She may wind up being the best, or she may decide she’d rather be really good at curling.  Kupcho, the oldest and only non-teenager in the group, will be all of 25 next month, so all three women have plenty of time to forge resumes worthy of the World Golf Hall of Fame.  But whatever Davis, Li, and Kupcho teach us in the next ten or twenty or thirty years, they have already reminded every golfer of the game’s ultimate truth.  Ambition is good, goals are important, but the only thing that really matters is the next shot. 


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