When Albane Valenzuela reached the championship match of the 2017 US Women’s Amateur Championship at San Diego Country Club before eventually losing in the 36-hole final, her road included a bevy of players with impeccable credentials.
Some of the luminaries she defeated were college standouts Cheyenne Knight (Alabama), Robynn Ree (University of Southern California) and Lilia Vu (UCLA), along with future Ladies British Amateur runner-up Stephanie Lau, a collegiate standout from Northwestern.
So, when the 64-player draw was revealed Tuesday night by the USGA, the Stanford University senior could only off a wry smile about her Round-of-64 opponent on Wednesday in the 119th US Women’s Amateur at Old Waverly Golf Club: fellow Women’s Amateur runner-up Sierra Brooks.
Just a few days earlier, the two college All-Americans bonded during a practice round. Then through the luck of the draw – all based on their 36-hole stroke-play qualifying scores – wound up matched against each other.
A match that would have been worthy of a semi-final or final more than lived up to its billing, with neither player holding more than a one-hole lead until the par-4 16th when Valenzuela, 21, of Switzerland, eventually pulled away, 2 and 1.
“She's a good friend, so you never want to play against a friend, and she's an unbelievable player, so I knew it was going to be a very tough match right off the bat,” said Valenzuela, the No.5 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR) who shared low-amateur honours in The Evian Championship two weeks ago. “But that's what can happen with match play. You get a draw, you have to play against a teammate, fellow competitors. I think we both gave a really good fight. We both missed out there, but we both also made some really good golf shots. It was a good match, and happy to get off with a win.”
“She's a good friend, so you never want to play against a friend, and she's an unbelievable player, so I knew it was going to be a very tough match right off the bat.” – Albane Valenzuela
Brooks, 21, of Orlando, Fla., a senior at the University of Florida who was the runner-up in the NCAA Championships in May and is No.14 in the WAGR, felt like the match pivoted on two mistakes, the latter coming on No.16 when she short-sided herself with the approach shot and failed to get up and down for par. She also double-bogied the first hole.
“I knew going into [the match] that she's an amazing player and has been in the same spot in this event as I have been, in the final match,” said Brooks, a member of the 2016 USA Curtis Cup Team who lost to Hannah O’Sullivan in the 36-hole championship match at Portland Golf Club. “So, you know it's going to be a grind, and it was. She didn't make any mistakes.
“My game feels good. I just had two missed shots today that kind of cost me … and for me that was the misplacement of my match.”
Match play is always a survival test, but on Wednesday the 64 competitors had to cope with more than just their opponents. Oppressive heat – temperatures in the 90s with a heat index hovering between 100 and 105 – brought an added intangible to the intensity.
RIGHT: Brooks was eliminated by Valenzuela in the Round-of-64 at Old Waverly Golf Club. PHOTO: Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
Many competitors and caddies used umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun and cold towels to stay cool. Water and sports drinks were the beverages of choice on virtually every hole.
But co-medallist and No.1 seed Jiarui Jin couldn’t continue hot play from stroke play. Campbell University sophomore Emily Hawkins, 18, of Lexington, N.C., delivered the day’s biggest upset, eliminating Jin, 16, of the People’s Republic of China, 4 and 2. Hawkins never trailed in the match and her 30-foot birdie on the par-5 15th essentially sealed the victory.
Jin, whose brother, Bo, was the runner-up in the US Junior Amateur three weeks ago, became the sixth medallist/co-medallist to fall in the Round of 64 since 2010, joining Jihee Kim (2011), Bethany Wu (2014), Angel Yin (2015), Jennifer Hahn (2015) and Mariel Galdiano (2016).
“I just felt like I had nothing to lose,” said Hawkins, the first player in Big South Conference history to garner Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honours. “Just go out there and play my best and see what happens, hit some fairways and then try to roll in a few putts.”
The news was better for the other co-medallist, Alexa Pano, of Lake Worth, Fla. The 14-year-old, who is believed to be the third-youngest medallist in championship history behind Lydia Ko (2011) and Yumi Matsubara (2013), won the first three holes against Texan Remington Isaac and cruised to a 5-and-4 victory. The 2019 US Women’s Open qualifier was coming off a Round-of-64 defeat in last month’s US Girls’ Junior as well as last year’s US Women’s Amateur.
“My game feels good. I just had two missed shots today that kind of cost me … and for me that was the misplacement of my match.” – Sierra Brooks
“I'm really happy with the start,” said Pano, who will be headed to Scotland next month to represent the USA in the Junior Solheim Cup. “It's been a pretty big goal for me the past couple years to get through the Round of 64 because I've just kind of halted there, and I'm really happy to have done that. But now I’m looking forward to improving throughout the rest of the championship and try to see how far I can go.”
Another match featuring two decorated players saw University of Texas All-American Kaityln Papp, 20, of Austin, Texas, the 2016 US Women’s Amateur Four-Ball champion with current college teammate Hailee Cooper, outlast 2019 US Girls’ Junior semi-finalist Yuka Saso, 18, of the Philippines, 2 and 1. The match was tied through 14 holes – each player won one hole – before Saso found the penalty area with her second shot on the par-5 15th. Papp’s two-putt birdie won the hole and she followed by making a 40-foot birdie on No.16 to go 2 up. On the par-3 17th, Papp’s tee shot stopped three feet from the hole and Saso eventually conceded when she failed to hole her tee shot.
“I knew it was going to be a very even match all day,” said Papp, who qualified for the 2019 US Women’s Open. “I knew she was a great player. I played with her at the Augusta Women's Amateur in April, so I knew she was a really solid player, hits it far, and I had to do my best not to make too many mistakes out there.”
Incoming Stanford University freshman Brooke Seay, 18, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., completed a remarkable comeback from 4 down with four to play to defeat Stephanie Kyriacou, 18, of Australia, in 22 holes, the longest match of the day. Seay, a quarterfinalist in last month’s US Girls’ Junior, holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-4 22nd, Old Waverly’s fourth hole, to end the marathon. Seay birdied Nos.15, 16 and 18 – the latter a concession – to force extra holes.
“I actually kind of like being in that position,” said Seay of her deficit. “I mean, it's more pressure, but in some sense it's liberating to know you just have to hit that shot, and so something just kind of turned on, and my game started coming into place. I just played really solid the last few holes.”