AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | It was a day of gulps and guts, charges and crashes, cheers and tears and in the end a different 17-year-old than everyone expected did a little bit of everything and had the nerve to bury a playoff 6-footer to become Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion.
Tsubasa Kajitani of Okayama, Japan, inherited then lost a late lead, nearly holed out a wedge on the final hole of regulation to help save par and then two-putted from the far side of the 18th green in the playoff to beat Emilia Migliaccio of Wake Forest in the second ANWA staged at the home of the Masters Tournament.
“To be honest, when I came to the States, I didn’t expect that I’m going to win the tournament,” the seemingly shocked teenager said through a translator. “And then day by day I have been confident and then I won the tournament, which means my world ranking is going to be up and hopefully I can play in another big tournament, as well, which is my dream before I came over here. Which is a dream come true, as well.”
Kajitani’s name and her place as the first from Japan and Asia to win at Augusta National will be what shows up in the history books. How it came down to Kajitani and Migliaccio, however, is the story of the tournament. It was not the same kind of story that Jennifer Kupcho and María Fassi wrote in the 2019 inaugural, when their final-round duel was punctuated by Kupcho’s familiar Augusta-style charge that included an eagle and three birdies on the last six holes.
That was the script everyone hoped to emulate. “I think after seeing what Jennifer and María did last time, you want to be in their shoes and you want to experience what they experience,” said final-round contender Olivia Mehaffey of Northern Ireland.
Six women touched the lead during the course of Saturday. ... Every one of those six felt the burn of flying close to the sun.
Those shoes and experiences don’t always fit in fairy-tale finishes.
For all the poetry and magic that Augusta National evokes in the minds and hearts of golfers and fans, there always lurks a darker side of its charms – a side that has broken many hearts and dreams through the years. The second playing of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur exposed that darker side in stark relief.
It’s one thing to play at Augusta National. It’s another thing to compete there. There is something about the competing and feeling the pressure of opportunity to win that reveals all the raw parts of a player and the game.
Thirty women played at Augusta National in Saturday’s final round. Six of those women touched the lead during the course of the day. Like Icarus, every one of those six felt the burn of flying close to the sun. It left a lot to unpack.
Foremost was world No. 1 Rose Zhang, a remarkable 17-year-old U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who projected can’t-miss poise all week. She started Saturday with a share of the lead and held it close through 12 holes before her sheen of invincibility was broken exiting Amen Corner. Two penalties and a triple bogey on the par-5 13th was too much ultimately to overcome.
“I mean, everyone playing was in contention basically, and to handle the pressure of just being on television and just playing at Augusta National, I think says a lot,” Zhang said.
There was Ingrid Lindblad of Sweden, No. 4 in the world and tied with Zhang for 36-hole lead. Unsettled from the start, Lindblad gamely battled to the end but was untidy on the greens at 14, 15 and 16 to scuttle her hopes.
“It’s tough out there and then you see the leaderboard and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m only one back or leading by one,’ ” Lindblad said. “So it’s a lot of thoughts like outside the golf – the whole golf experience.”
Mehaffey posed the biggest early challenge to Zhang, rising to a share of the lead at 2 under with birdies on Nos. 7 and 8. But bogeys at 9 and 10 gave it back and then came the double on the wee 12th where thoughts of Tiger Woods’ 10 there during the final round in November spooked her.
“It’s very different when you're in contention and you’re not just playing and trying to enjoy it,” Mehaffey said.
First-round leader Karen Fredgaard of Denmark surged to the top of the board with birdies at 7, 9, 11 and 13 on Saturday. She knew where she stood – “It’s almost impossible not to look at the leaderboard out here because it’s huge and it’s almost every hole,” she said – and her bold play at the 15th and 18th and a putt that got away left her lamenting “now I can say I did Augusta.”
Migliaccio – at peace with a decision to not turn professional – played 18 holes unfettered by pressure, casually enjoying the experience with her mother on the bag and posting a 2-under 70 she was blissfully unaware had set a clubhouse lead that the contenders behind her would fail to improve.
“It was so fun. It was so special. That’s all I wanted to do,” she said before knowing her 1-over mark was bound for a playoff more than an hour later. “The course was just spectacular and it was awesome to have played well on top of it and to be competing at the highest level on the best course in the universe, pretty much.”
With a different perspective in the playoff, Migliaccio fanned her approach on the 18th to a spot right of the bunker no player wants to find and made bogey to cede the floor to Kajitani.
“It’s hard to bogey and lose to a par,” she said. “If they birdie, it’s like, well, I did everything I could. But I wanted to hit a better shot and felt good over the club and was happy to be in the fairway but just didn’t work out.”
Even the winner, Kajitani, was not immune to exposed nerves. Inheriting a two-shot lead after Zhang’s and Fredgaard’s simultaneous misfires, the young Japanese player made a mess of the 17th from the fairway and made double. After topping it out of the deep fairway bunker on 18, she seemed to be reeling until her brilliant wedge spun back off the slope and nearly fell in for birdie.
“Of course, I have been disappointed, such as I made a double-bogey on 17, but my caddie said just look forward to 18,” said Kajitani, who was ranked No. 26 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking coming in. “So I changed my mind and I just switched off and switched on to the 18th. So that’s why I made a par on 18.”
For all the chaos that encompassed Augusta’s second-nine on Saturday, the biggest takeaway was how gracefully each of the women handled their missteps. Not a single one of them let their mistakes sink them, rising from those lows to keep creating opportunities to bounce back. Though none of their birdie chances fell, they each made it to the last hole with a chance to win or tie.
Only Kajitani left as a champion, but they all left with a championship experience they’ll never forget.
“It’s just I think sometimes you can't really be too hard on yourself, especially when you are on the greatest stage of amateur golf,” said Zhang. “This is Augusta National. I think it’s our responsibility to just be excited and happy to be on this golf course and to be able to be in contention.
“I don’t really want to take any bad memories away from here.”
Top: Tsubasa Kajitani and her caddie negotiate Augusta National