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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shepherd wins and other stories from the U.S. Girls' Junior at Boone Valley

   Erica Shepherd, a 16-year-old from Greenwood, Ind., captured the U.S. Girls’ Junior title Saturday with a 3 and 2 victory over her pal Jennifer Chang, a 17-year-old from Cary, N.C., in the scheduled 36-hole final at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo.
   The title match got lost a little in the understandable uproar that came in the wake of Shepherd’s 19th-hole victory over Elizabeth Moon of Forrest City, Ark., in Friday’s semifinals. It’s been called controversial, but there was really nothing controversial about the penalty that Moon incurred when she hastily pulled the ball back after missing a three-foot birdie putt that would have given her the match.
   It was just shocking, the kind of sudden end that makes match play so riveting.
   It looked like Moon, not Shepherd, was headed for a spot in the final opposite Chang when Moon’s approach at the par-5 14th hole, the 19th hole of the match, finished three feet below the hole. Shepherd couldn’t even bear to watch as she waited on the side of the green for the sound of the ball hitting the bottom of the cup.
   But the ball, after a tentative swipe by Moon, never even touched the hole. Then she did what golfers have been doing for as long as the game has been played. She reached for the ball with her putter to putt it again (yes, they always go in the second time).
   Shepherd’s caddy said, “Did you give her that putt?” Shepherd said, “I was going to.”
   But it was too late. Moon had essentially given the putt to herself and replayed the stroke before Shepherd had a chance to concede it. The match was over.
   Nobody felt good about it. Chang had to give Shepherd a pep talk before the title match teed off Saturday morning. The message essentially: Forget about it, let’s go play golf.
   If it’s the biggest mistake Moon ever makes, she’ll have a very good life. And yeah, competition is about winning and losing, but junior golf is also about developing young people as golfers and people and Moon knows more about Rule 18-2 than she ever cared to.
   And Moon played some great golf at Boone Valley. I was pulling for Ami Gianchandani of Wachtung, N.J., mostly because she came out of the qualifier at Silver Creek Country Club in Hellertown that a lot of the girls from this area played in. Gianchandani was actually the runnerup for medalist honors to Jennifer Cleary, the Wilmington, Del. resident who has had a really strong summer.
   And Gianchandani had all kinds of momentum going into her quarterfinal match with Moon Friday morning after the Pingry School senior stunned one of the top junior golfers on the planet, Paphangkorn Tavatanakit of Thailand, 1-up, in the round of 16 Thursday.
   Gianchandani got the early lead on Moon, something she had been successful doing in her three previous matches. A birdie at the par-5 14th – that hole came up a lot in the last two days of the tournament – gave Gianchandani a 2-up lead with four holes to play.
   But Moon made a stunning turnaround, evening the match with back-to-back birdies at 16 and 17 that drew her even with Gianchandani and then winning the 18th with a par for a 1-up victory. That is what she should remember from her U.S. Girls’ Junior Friday, not the unfortunate end to the day five or so hours later.
   And, by the way, really nice run by Gianchandani at Boone Valley.
   In that semifinal match, Shepherd found herself 2-down with four to play when Moon birdied, you guessed it, the par-5 14th. But Shepherd, much as Moon had done against Gianchandani earlier in the day, battled back, winning the 15th with a birdie and the 17th with a par to send the match to the fateful 19th.
   Shepherd, who is right-handed in almost everything she does, but plays golf left-handed, built a 4-up lead with a birdie on the 24th hole of the final against Chang, who plans to join the powerhouse Southern California program next summer.
   Chang, who hadn’t trailed in a match all week, battled back as Shepherd knew she would. Chang won the 25th hole with a par, the 28th with a bogey and the 31st with a birdie to draw within 1-down. But Shepherd birdied the par-5 14th – there’s that hole again – the 32nd of the match, to restore her 2-up advantage.
   When Shepherd drilled a 5-iron to 12 feet at the par-3 16th, it was over.
   It was also nice to hear the story about Shepherd’s mentor, Leigh Anne Creavy, who was Leigh Anne Hardin when she won the Girls’ Junior in 1998 at my favorite golf course, the East Course at Merion Golf Club. I was still new at the Delco Daily Times that summer, but Bob Lentz, who, I believe, is still with The Associated Press in Philadelphia, covered the Girls’ Junior for us.
   Creavy defeated Brittany Straza, 2-up, in the final 19 years ago. There’s a really nice story by Lisa D. Mickey on the USGA website chronicling the special relationship between Creavy and Shepherd.
   I seem to recall that that Girls’ Junior was something of a coronation for Beth Bauer, who was the defending champion and finishing off one of the most outstanding runs by any junior golfer ever. Bauer would precede Creavy to Duke.
   Bauer and Creavy both seemed destined for LPGA stardom and, although Bauer was the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2001, neither ever really did become stars.
   But Creavy, pretty much unintentionally, became a mentor to the kid whose father was friends with her father-in-law. Not that Creavy didn’t get something out of it. During the Fox broadcast of the final, she admitted that Shepherd had rekindled Creavy’s passion for the game. They formed a team in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship in 2015.
   Life rarely works out the way you think it will. Creavy didn’t turn out to be an LPGA star, but mother and mentor to a girl who matched your feat by winning a U.S. Girls’ Junior title, that’s not bad either.
   Shepherd will also follow in Creavy’s footsteps and head for Duke at the end of next summer. Me, I’m looking forward to a rematch between Shepherd and Chang in a Duke-USC NCAA semifinal in three or four years. Now that would be fun.
   And I’ll be rooting for Elizabeth Moon because she won’t be defined by one moment when she was just ticked because she hit such a lousy putt and she had to putt it again, right away.

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