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Shepherd Follows in Footsteps of 1998 Champion July 29, 2017 | AUGUSTA, Mo. By Lisa D. Mickey

Erica Shepherd rallied from deficits in her last four matches to reach the championship final of the 69th U.S. Girls' Junior. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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It’s easy to underestimate the tenacity behind Erica Shepherd’s big blue eyes and gentle smile.

One might be inclined to see her as a sweet Midwestern teenager who likes basketball, golf, and maybe puppies and county fairs.

But this 16-year-old amateur from Greenwood, Ind., can burn hot – fiery enough to make her choose between high school basketball, which she played until last year, or golf, in which she has ramped up her game enough to land in Saturday’s championship match of this 69th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship against Jennifer Chang.

“I had to quit basketball because I couldn’t stop myself from being super-aggressive,” said Shepherd, a two-time Indiana Girls’ Junior golf champion and a former 5-foot-5 guard on her Center Grove High School team who was known for diving head-first on the floor after loose balls.

That never-quit mindset has served the rising high school junior well in match play this week. She trailed in all but one of the five matches she won en route to the final.

“I actually love being down because I know I have to come back to win and I don’t want to lose.”

That competitive nature can be traced – at least in part – to someone who previously won this championship. Longtime family friend and 1998 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Leigh Anne Hardin – now married as Leigh Anne Creavy – is a former top Indiana amateur and a member of the 2002 USA Curtis Cup Team. Creavy was, in fact, a major influence in Shepherd getting into golf years ago.

“I’ve looked up to her my whole life and I’m not even sure I would be playing golf right now if she hadn’t encouraged me,” said Shepherd of her special relationship with Creavy. “She had a really great junior and amateur career. I look at that and I’m motivated to do what she did.”

Shepherd has long looked up to family friend Leigh Anne Creavy (left), who won the 1998 U.S. Girls' Junior title. 

Shepherd’s father grew up with Creavy’s father and uncles in Indiana. When Erica was born, she was given the middle name Leigh in honor of Leigh Anne. For years, whatever Creavy did, Shepherd seemed to emulate, even with a nearly 20-year age difference.

Originally of Martinsville, Ind., Creavy is a former 5-foot-8 point guard and shooting guard for the Martinsville High School girls’ basketball team. She led her team to two Indiana state championships, averaging 15 points per game and could have played NCAA Division I basketball if that had been her choice. She chose golf.

Golf over basketball. Sound familiar?

Creavy won the 1998 Girls’ Junior at Merion Golf Club by defeating Brittany Straza, 2 up, in the final in the summer following her sophomore year of high school. Her girls’ golf team won four state high school championships, while she won the state individual title in three of those four years.

On Friday, Shepherd defeated Youngin Chun, of Gainesville, Fla., 3 and 1, in the morning to set up her Friday afternoon semifinal match against No. 42 seed Elizabeth Moon of Forrest City, Ark. That match ended on the 19th hole when Moon missed her birdie putt and erroneously picked up her ball, assuming a conceded putt before it was actually given. That action was a violation of Rule 18-2, which resulted in a one-stroke penalty – ultimately giving Shepherd the win.

“I didn’t want to win like that,” Shepherd told Fox Sports TV immediately after the match. “I really feed bad for Elizabeth.”

It was a tough way to advance into Saturday’s championship final against her good friend Chang, of Cary, N.C. When Shepherd was transported to talk to media, her eyes were still red. The teen was shaken, perhaps for the first time all week.

But the match was over, and the task was now to only look forward toward Saturday’s finals.

Playing in her fifth USGA championship, Shepherd’s best finish prior to this week was reaching the Round of 32 at the 2016 Girls’ Junior. She also qualified for and played in the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open, missing the cut, and she will compete in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship in two weeks.

Right-handed in everything but golf, Shepherd said she plays left-handed because when she was very young, she and her brother would share the same bucket of balls whenever they practiced with her father.

 With her amateur status reinstated after having played a few years on what is now the Symetra Tour, Creavy attempted to qualify with Shepherd for the 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball. They didn’t make it, but it was a highlight for Shepherd to compete alongside her fellow Indianan, who went on to an All-America career at Duke University.

“It meant the world to me,” said Shepherd of the experience of playing the Four-Ball qualifier with Creavy. “And I hope we can do it again.”

As for Creavy, who also hopes to qualify for this year’s U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, watching Shepherd inspired her.

“Erica has said I’m her role model, but really, she is my role model,” said Creavy, who is married to Orlando-based swing instructor Tom Creavy and a mother of three. “I got my amateur status back because she inspired me to play golf again.”

Shepherd, who was a flower child in Creavy’s wedding, has even verbally committed to play college golf at Duke, again hoping to follow her namesake to the next level.

“Leigh Anne had a great time at Duke, so I knew it would be a good choice for me, but she just wanted what I wanted,” said Shepherd.

As an amateur, Creavy was quiet and steady with a deft short game, while Shepherd is known for her length and inner fire.

“I love how Erica has a go-for-it mentality,” said Creavy. “She’s also an awesome basketball player – almost too awesome, to the point that when I watched her play, it made me nervous.”

When Fox Sports announcer and World Golf Hall of Famer Juli Inkster asked Shepherd between Friday’s matches if she was one of the longer hitters at this week’s championship, the fresh-faced amateur didn’t blink.

“I hit it pretty good when I hit it good,” she said, with a slight smile.

When pressed for yardages, she told Inkster she hits her 7-iron about 163 yards.

And when questioned about the strength of her game, once again Shepherd didn’t hesitate.

“My competitive edge,” she said. “Hitting good shots when I need to.”

Creavy calls the teen “the most disciplined and determined person” she has ever met.

With Shepherd having a chance to replicate her own win at the Girls’ Junior 19 years later on Saturday, Creavy will be parked in front of her TV, hoping the best for her namesake.

“It’s special to watch her shine and to be a small part of her success,” Creavy said. “Honestly, this is just the beginning of all she will do.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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