USGA CHAMPIONS
Shepherd Eager for Return Trip to Women’s Open March 14, 2018 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By Scott Lipsky, USGA


 

Leading close friend Jennifer Chang in the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship final, 2 up, with three holes to play, 16-year-old Erica Shepherd calmly rolled in a 2-foot putt to close out the 36-hole match. It was the end of an exhausting, emotional week in the summer heat at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo. After hugging Chang, she turned to her caddie and longtime coach, Brent Nicoson, and started to well up with tears. Then she walked toward her parents, Jerlyn and Matt, who had already started to cry upon witnessing their daughter’s life-changing achievement.

Past is prologue, they say. So, when Erica received a call from the USGA in October informing her that she would be the first player to benefit from a new exemption that gives the reigning Girls’ Junior champion a U.S. Women’s Open spot, well, cue the water works.

“I’m really emotional, so I cried,” Shepherd recalled in February in her hometown of Greenwood, Ind. “I’m pretty sure my dad cried, because he’s even more emotional than me. That’s usually what our family does.”

Competing in the Women’s Open is a goal of every female golfer, but for Shepherd, the anticipation is heightened by the opportunity to improve on what was an all-around disappointing performance when she played in the championship the first time. Shepherd qualified for the 2016 Women’s Open at CordeValle, but shot 82-75 to miss the cut. That performance is hardly surprising coming from a wide-eyed 15-year-old competing with the best golfers in the world, but youth was only one contributing factor.

When Shepherd and her family arrive at Shoal Creek in Alabama, she hopes she is in much better health. At CordeValle, Shepherd was dealing with a displaced rib in her back, and was in so much discomfort that she thought she would have to withdraw. She made it through 36 holes, but it wasn’t how she had envisioned her Women’s Open debut.

“It wasn’t just that it hurt to swing, I couldn’t breathe,” Shepherd said. “I was hitting it nowhere because of my back. I was just more worried about being healthy that week than actually taking in the experience.”

Shepherd hardly came away empty-handed, however. A practice round with 2007 Women’s Open champion Cristie Kerr – and observing other top players – provided insights into what it takes to get to the highest level of the game.

“I paid attention to everything. How they talk to people, how they treat their caddies and coaches, the kinds of questions they ask,” said Shepherd. “Cristie putted more than anyone I’ve seen in a practice round, and she’s one of the best putters in the world, so that kind of hit me. Usually, people think that I’m intimidating, but when I was at CordeValle, my fellow competitors were the ones intimidating me.”

Erica Shepherd celebrated with her parents immediately after capturing the U.S. Girls' Junior title. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Two years later, Shepherd is a lot more comfortable in elite competitions. In addition to her Girls’ Junior title, she made match play in last year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur and made the cut in the LPGA Tour’s Indy Women in Tech Championship, just a short drive from home. One of her practice-round partners there was 2016 Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang. Lang played golf at Duke University, the same school Shepherd plans to attend beginning in 2019.

Now 17, Shepherd’s presence is unlikely to garner any sideways looks from the seasoned pros on the practice range, as teenagers have routinely played well in recent years. Last year, Hye-Jin Choi nearly won as a 17-year-old amateur, and Shepherd’s close friend, 15-year-old Rachel Heck, finished tied for 33rd. Shepherd and Heck have talked about Heck’s Women’s Open experience, and Shepherd isn’t shy about her goal of earning low-amateur honors at Shoal Creek.

“It means so much more [this time]. I’m not really sure why, but maybe because last year I tried to qualify and I didn’t qualify. That’s kind of what made me have such a good year, because that made me so mad,” Shepherd said. “One of the reasons I think I was so mad is because I needed to get revenge because I didn’t play well in 2016. So, this year is my ultimate revenge.”

And if, 2½ months from now, Shepherd finds herself on the 18th green at Shoal Creek receiving the low-amateur medal with her family looking on, it will indeed be sweet revenge. Revenge, with a side of tears.

Scott Lipsky is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.