Ask any elite women’s amateur golfer of the past four years what her favorite event of the year is, and she’ll likely say the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
For 123 years, there was no other women’s amateur championship that came remotely close to the prestige of the U.S. Women’s Amateur. But a chance to play Augusta National, regardless of finish, with top-notch accommodations makes for the opportunity of a lifetime. The invite also makes for a nice ego boost.
It would be a mistake, however, to place one above the other.
In its 128-year history, having birthed 123 champions (repetition included), the U.S. Women’s Amateur has been the pinnacle of amateur women’s golf – its conception before collegiate women’s golf and before even the U.S. Women’s Open. Its first field boasted only 13 players and was only accessible to those who belonged to USGA or federation-affiliated private clubs. It was the antithesis of everything the championship has become. The evolution of the event has allowed it to endure. Nothing in women’s golf can rival its rich history.
This year, in 2023, the championship received a record number of entries: 1,679. Of those entries, 33 players were exempt, and the rest tried their chances at 25 qualifying sites to decide the field of 156 competitors.
But there was one wrinkle with this year’s field: Only 8 of the best 25 players in the world, in a rankings list overseen by the USGA and R&A, were competing in the championship. Each player in the top 25 is exempt into the championship. In a championship that’s the core piece of the grand slam of women’s amateur golf (ANWA, U.S. Women’s Am, U.S. Girls, NCAAs), where was the rest of the field?
Most of them, including the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, Ingrid Lindblad, were final qualifying for a spot in the AIG Women’s Open.
This fragmentation of fields isn’t new. The Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the Chevron Championship overlapped in the first three years of the ANWA. Top players who received invitations and exemptions would be faced with a tough decision. Yes, the choice between a major championship and the chance to play Augusta National is the definition of a first-world problem. Regardless, it was an unfair burden placed on top athletes of a respective sport who have few opportunities to showcase their talent. It took four years, but Chevron found a spot two weeks later on the calendar.
But a few months later, another scheduling conflict arises: The U.S. Women’s Amateur, or the AIG Women’s Open? (Side note: The AIG Women’s Open will not overlap with the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2024.)
The defending champion of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Saki Baba, chose the major championship that very title gave her an exemption to. Who could blame her? There will be more U.S. Women’s Amateurs to chase — nine more years of exemptions, to be exact, provided she remains an amateur. So by its own scheduling gaffe, the U.S. Women’s Amateur field suffered. Without Baba, who boat raced the field in 2022 at Chambers Bay, it seemed like intrigue might be hard to come by.
The quality of golf, thankfully, did not disappoint.
Any fear of boredom quickly went away as soon as balls were in the air. A true test took place at Bel-Air Country Club, and those who emerged brought the kind of drama Hollywood has been missing. By the time the 156-player field whittled down to the semifinals, four accomplished players were vying for the most coveted title of their career: All had played in an Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Three were All-Americans. One was an NCAA champion. But none had won a U.S. Women’s Amateur.
It was Rachel Heck, Hailey Borja, Latanna Stone and Megan Schofill on one of the game’s great stages.
Stone made quick work of her good friend Rachel Heck, who was writing an incredible comeback story in her journey to the semifinal. Stone’s command had her 5 up thru 15, and what Heck did summon was inspiring but would not be enough with Stone eventually winning 3&2. Schofill and Borja would keep things pretty tight, until an incredible tee shot from Schofill on 14 paved the way for a big-time eagle that Borja would never answer, with Schofill winning 2&1.
And then there were two.
There are plenty of arguments about the merits of match play, and whether it’s a proper evaluation of player vs. course. But course conditions and setup mean very little to the two players who advance to the championship match. An opponent demanding your very best golf measures true grit – and makes for some damn good TV.
That’s exactly what Schofill and Stone asked out of one another. Stone attempted to power through a calf strain in her right leg that would weaken her swing, doing her best to keep pace with another incredible ball-striker in Schofill – who looked like she was in cruise control all week at Bel-Air. But Stone’s putter – which has been her achilles heel in big-time moments – would fail her when she needed it most. Any mistake by Schofill was met with a quick recovery, including a tee shot on the 32nd hole (No. 14) that sailed 60 yards off line into the mulch-covered canyon. She’d lose that hole, but promptly close out the match on No. 15, winning 4&3 over a long-time friend, who immediately offered her a warm embrace.
“I can't put into words the emotions I'm feeling,” Schofill said moments later. “It's just such an honor to be able to say I won here this year.”
Megan Schofill didn’t come out of nowhere, but she’s never been a household name, either. She’d never made it past the round of 16 in a U.S. Women’s Amateur. When she made it through the semifinals on Saturday, and tears began to well up in her eyes, it was clear she’d been waiting for her moment for a long time.
The U.S. Women’s Amateur typically achieves two things: platform a breakout star or re-establish a top player’s reign. But every year, without fail, it snapshots the best player in the field in that given week. Schofill was clearly that.
She may also be a breakout star. Time will tell. But the U.S. Women’s Amateur championship also emerged as a winner this week. It doesn’t matter who isn’t in the field, it only matters who is. The Augusta National Women’s Amateur has the allure of something shiny and new, but the U.S. Women’s Amateur still has history on its side — the hungriest players in the world trying to survive the hardest week of golf.
Each one is vying for their moment. This year, Schofill grabbed hold of hers.