Jensen Castle and Anna Morgan and Hannah Darling are back to compete in the prestigious Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and they’re naturally looking forward to the experience.
Castle, Morgan and Darling give the state of South Carolina three players in the select field with ties to the Palmetto State — a significant number considering the international flavor of the 72 competitors.
▪ Jensen Castle: from West Columbia and a senior at the University of Kentucky, ranked 22nd in the women’s world amateur golf rankings.
▪ Anna Morgan: from Spartanburg and a senior at Furman University, ranked 63rd in the women’s world rankings.
▪ Hannah Darling: a native of Scotland and a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, No. 12 in the rankings.
All will be making their second appearances in the ANWA and join the competitors who will play 36 holes over the Champions Retreat Golf Club course on Wednesday and Thursday before moving to Augusta National for a practice round Friday and the final round Saturday.
This will be the fourth edition of the tournament that draws the strongest field among women amateurs.
Let’s meet the South Carolina contingent:
In thinking about the 2022 ANWA, Castle “remembers everything” about the experience and especially her march up the hill to the 18th green at Augusta National on Saturday. A sea of Kentucky blue — family, friends and teammates — formed a welcoming committee.
“A special moment,” she said.
Castle posted a 2-over-par 74 in her Augusta National round and tied for 12th — the best among the South Carolinians — at 5-over 221.
Before she turns her attention to Augusta, she and her Kentucky teammates will be competing in the Clemson Invitational that ends Sunday.
No matter how she plays there, she will head to Augusta with her game in great shape. She has top-10 finishes in five of her seven tournaments this season with one win in the fall and a tie for third in the recent Florida State Match-Up.
Castle suffered a concussion in January and missed one tournament, but she came back strong and said, “It’s just good to be playing golf again.”
Her goal: “I want to do everything to be in contention” on Saturday, she said. “That’s my mindset, to take care of the process, to do what I can control.”
That philosophy has served her well through junior golf, high school competition at White Knoll and Gray Collegiate, college at Kentucky and high-profile national and international events.
And, of course, she knows about success. She won the 2021 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship on another of the big stages in the women’s game.
Castle’s attention to detail pays handsome dividends. She practices with a purpose, and that’s especially important at Augusta National.
“You have to put the ball in the right places on the greens and you have to use your imagination there,” she said. “You have to see the shot and hit the shot.”
She plans to try her hand at the pro game one day, but that can wait. She graduated in December, has begun work on her master’s degree in marketing and plans to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility created by the COVID outbreak.
By Monday, her attention will be focused fully on Augusta and perhaps another march up No. 18 into a sea of blue awaits.
Growing up, Anna Morgan played baseball. A pitcher — and a good one, from all reports.
“But at a certain age, they said I had to play softball,” she remembered. “I’m stubborn. Instead, I switched to golf.”
The result: Golf is richer for that decision.
The change is paying handsome dividends, a point emphasized by her Wednesday tee time in her second appearance in the ANWA.
“It’s hard not to look ahead and anticipate,” she said. “It’s exciting. Last year (in the ANWA) was one of my most special golf experiences.
“I didn’t have any expectations. I really hoped to make the cut. The experience told me I could compete with the best players and I know I can again.”
She finished tied for 21st a year ago and treasures the moments. But she’s no stranger to high-profile events. Her resume includes the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open.
“It’s hard to compare events. Each is special in its own way,” Morgan said. “The Open, my first event against pros ... that’s always one to remember. Then, there’s Augusta with all its history and to hit that first tee shot.
“I was so nervous, but it was really neat. I mean, (Hall of Famer) Annika (Sorenstam) was there watching.”
Furman’s and the Southern Conference’s female athlete of the year in 2021-22, she finished ninth individually in the 2022 NCAA Championship and earned second-team All-America honors. She set the tournament record in winning the recent UNF Collegiate title.
“My game is definitely trending in the right direction,” she said. “I want to peak at the right time like last year. I’m still working on some things, but the college win gives me confidence.”
Anna followed in her dad’s and brother’s footsteps in taking up golf. She started competing in U.S. Kids’ events, then junior golf and high school tournaments before college and big amateur competition. Her titles include both the South Carolina and Carolinas women’s amateurs.
“In high school, I thought, ‘I’m better than I realized,’ ” she said and laughed.
She admired Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Stacy Lewis growing up, with Lewis her favorite.
“I got to play a practice round with Stacy in the (2022) Women’s Open and that was great,” Morgan said. “But I was way too shy to talk about how I had watched her. I never thought I would be there (in the Women’s Open).”
The pro game will be in her future, but she plans to take her fifth year of college eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, though, Augusta is on her mind.
In announcing her 2021 signing class, South Carolina women’s coach Kalen Anderson had this to say about one of the future Gamecocks:
“Hannah Darling is one of the most physically talented junior players that I’ve seen in my career. Coupled with her upbeat and energetic personality, Hannah will bring a significant boost to our line-up. Hannah has a wealth of international competitive experience and holds numerous titles around the world.
“She has represented Europe in the Junior Solheim Cup, dominated golf in Scotland and the UK, and is currently is ranked 50th in the world. I look forward to experiencing the next four years with Hannah, creating memories, assisting her in her lofty goals.”
Coaches often surrender to hyperbole in describing their recruits, but maybe Anderson fell short in outlining possibilities for Darling, a native of Midlothian, Scotland.
By the time she arrived in Columbia nine months later, she had climbed to 25th in the world amateur golf rankings and currently is No. 12.
She finished second individually against a stout field in her first college tournament en route to forging one of the best freshman seasons in the program’s history. In 11 events, she posted five top-5 finishes and seven top-10s, and she earned first-team All-America honors.
“Very solid, very consistent,” Anderson said in reviewing Darling’s freshman season.
The current campaign is more of the same with top-10s in four of her six stroke-play events, including a second in the Windy City Collegiate and a tie for third in the Jackson T. Stephens Cup.
In between, she represented Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup, reached the semifinals of the Women’s Amateur at Hunstanton in England and shared fourth individually in the World Amateur Team Championship in France.
She returns for her second appearance in the ANWA and looks to improve of her tie for 27th a year ago. She posted rounds of 73-76 over Champions Retreat to qualify for the final round at Augusta National. But she three-putted the first green and shot 79.
“I just didn’t get the pace (of the greens) from the start,” Darling told reporters after her final round a year ago.
She struggled to 5-over-par after six holes, came back with three birdies over the next six before dropping shots coming home.
“I didn’t feel I hit the ball too badly and didn’t do anything really bad,” she said last April. “I just kept three-putting due to the pace (of the greens). If I had parred the first, I could have been standing here in a different position ... but I enjoyed the experience.”
She will be looking to make amends this week.
How to watch: Augusta National Women’s Amateur
▪ Dates: Wednesday to Saturday (March 29-April 1)
▪ Locations: The first two rounds are played Wednesday and Thursday at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Georgia, with the final round played Saturday at Augusta National. (Friday is a closed practice round at Augusta National)
▪ TV: The Wednesday and Thursday rounds will be broadcast on Golf Channel (1:30-3:30 p.m.). The final round will air on NBC Sports on April 1 (noon to 3 p.m.), the Saturday before the Masters.
This week's @wkytsports Athlete(s) of the Week: @KentuckyWGolf teammates Laney Frye & Jensen Castle. They'll be teeing off in the @anwagolf tournament next week. Here's what Jensen had to say about inspiring the next generation of female golfers #BBN pic.twitter.com/3AYUsR2Bv8
— Lyndsey Gough (@LGonTV) March 22, 2023