36 mph gusts, tear-stained faces, and sighs of relief.

Welcome to cut day at Champions Retreat, where the character development is real.

Tame first-round conditions instilled a sense of hope in everyone – receptive greens, mild wind – players spoke with confidence heading into Thursday’s second round, the 18-hole sprint to making it to the final round at Augusta National Golf Club.

Instead, they were met with some of the toughest conditions that veterans could remember. Brutal winds knocked even the most experienced players off their feet. Second-guessing shots and club selection led to some regrettable errors.

It’s a tournament designed for the game’s best, but a day designed for the game’s toughest.

35 players survived and now advance to Saturday’s final round at Augusta National – but with a day in between for a practice round, there’s plenty to reflect on and anticipate ahead of it.

For a second year in a row, defending champion Anna Davis was assessed a penalty for a rules violation.

In 2023, it was for using lift, clean, place in the rough twice, giving her a four-shot penalty. This year? Slow play on the 17th hole, after she’d been warned once on the fifth hole. That ultimately cost her the cut, with Davis reportedly declining to talk about it after.

I spent 7 holes behind Davis’ group on Wednesday – watching Amanda Sambach, Yana Wilson and Rocio Tejedo. Twice, that group was warned that they were out of position. None of the members of that trio spent much time over their shots, and once they reached the par-3 eighth, they spent a few minutes waiting for Davis’ group to clear.

That said, slow play isn’t uncommon out here.

Florida State sophomore Lottie Woad and 16-year-old Gianna Clemente were the only two players on Thursday to play 36 holes at Champions Retreat under par – landing themselves in Saturday’s final group.

Woad currently leads at 5-under, two shots clear of Clemente who is tied for second. Each played the event for the first time last year and made the cut – but simultaneously, craved more.

“I feel like coming into this week I wanted a little bit more than that. Obviously to make the cut and play it in competition again, but I think maybe just being in one of the leading groups and having the bigger crowds and the more pressure. I think I wanted a little bit more out of this week,” 16-year-old Clemente said.

Clemente and Woad may not share much outside of a tee time on Saturday, but both are clearly playing fearless. Admitting that she paid attention to leaderboards, Woad wasn’t afraid to confront a costly two-bogey stretch early in the day. A 7-iron into the wind on the par 5 ninth hole that left her a tap-in for birdie led to a bogey-free10-hole stretch to seal the 36-hole lead.

It wasn’t her favorite shot of the day, but it was arguably the most important.

“I didn’t think I’d be leading when I was 3-over through 8 today,” she said.

Maybe she couldn’t deal with the pressure of a Rose Zhang comparison at last year’s ANWA, but Zhang’s successor as the No. 1 amateur is playing like the title suggests.

On Tuesday, after a first-round 67, reporters made Ingrid Lindblad’s missed cut in 2023 a point of emphasis. She candidly admitted that the comparison wore her down, but was optimistic after finishing T2. On Wednesday, the brutal conditions had no mercy on Lindblad, and she went +4 in her first 5 holes, her putter letting her down. It looked like all the progress, confidence – was out the window. Until she parred the rest of the way and securely dropped just three spots down the leaderboard.

In the year between her least favorite ANWA and now, Lindblad has brought her mental game to new heights. Last fall, she endured one of the toughest tests of her entire career. Wanting to feel her game out in the pro ranks and earn a little status, she entered Q-School last fall and advanced to Stage II. When she arrived in Venice, FL, Delta had lost her luggage. Noticing her AirTag signaled a house, Lindblad filed a police report and frantically rushed to the nearest Lululemon to buy some clothes that she could compete in. But what was most important couldn’t be replaced, which included a sentimental stuffed bunny.

In a quest for security in life after college golf, she felt incomplete. But she pushed it all aside to dominate curious amateurs like her and professionals vying for their careers in medaling at the event. She opted not to compete in Q-Series to finish out her eligibility at LSU. (Eventually, she says, Delta reimbursed her.)

In between recalling the tale on Wednesday, Lindblad took a glance at the ANWA leaderboard and smiled. “Oh! I’m T5 now.”

In her five years of college, among the 14 wins and dozens of other accolades, there are fewer moments that are too big for Ingrid Lindblad. But that’s why she’s the best in the world.

Imposter syndrome was once rampant among many ANWA competitors.

Not young players. Not first-timers. But proven competitors, like Michigan fifth-year Hailey Borja, who last played in 2022 and contended on the final day at Augusta National. Still, she was deep into a battle with self-doubt. She had struggled with her golf game in the year that followed and was ineligible for an invitation in 2023. Later that year, she made a statement run at the 2023 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Bel-Air Country Club when she advanced to the semifinals – the moment where it all came together.

“It made me realize that I belong where I am,” Borja says with certainty. “Sometimes, I think a lot of players feel like they're a little bit of an imposter almost like it's not real or it doesn't feel like I belong here. But I think being in that final four at the Am really made me feel confident in my game and in myself that I do belong here, and I am able to compete with all these players.”

Borja is tied for fifth heading into Saturday’s final round. But ahead of her, tied for second, Maisie Filler recalls her own difficulty with recognizing her own ability.

I was definitely uncertain of myself and was wondering if I belonged in certain settings. But once I got to college, I realized I do belong anywhere,” Filler, now a senior at the University of Florida, is sixth-best college golfer in the world.

Coming here and knowing that I earned a place in this especially gave me confidence that I am one of the best in the world.”

17-year-old Eila Galitsky has seen more of the golf world than most of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur field. Even those who had made it to the final round, something she missed out on her first time in 2023.

On Wednesday afternoon, Galitsky finished tied for 5th, calmly walking to the media area afterward. She emulated the demeanors she’d witnessed from professionals in three major championships, explaining to reporters how it contributed to some maturing.

But an hour later, she was found putting in some extra work on the driving range – until she received a FaceTime. “I made the cut!” she shouts with childlike joy, walking away from her golf bag and crouching to fill them in.

Perhaps the most mature part was realizing just how much making the cut meant.

Eila Galitsky hugs her caddie.
Eila Galitsky hugs her caddie.