21 Moments That Made Amateur Golf Great in 2021
From the rise of Rose Zhang to an NBA legend joining the college scene, 2021 was a year to remember for amateur golf
By Jordan Perez
For the amateur scene, 2021 was certainly one for the books. A return to college golf in the spring and a somewhat normalized summer schedule that followed led to lots of memorable moments—some that would change the landscape forever. If you missed those moments or feel like taking a stroll down memory lane, peep the highlights.
- Rose Zhang’s Rise to the Top
Zhang became the first player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur (2020) and the U.S. Girls’ Junior (2021). She also anchored U.S. victories in the Curtis Cup and the Spirit International. Zhang went on to win her first three collegiate events during her fall freshman semester at Stanford. While her golf game has zero chill, her personality isn’t lacking. She says, “The more people talk about me, the more I think I’m on the right track.” (In that case, I won’t stop.)
2. NIL for One, NIL for All!
The controlled chaos of Name, Image, Likeness cash for college athletes began on July 1, but for college golf, it came a few days later when the USGA and the R&A confirmed collegians’ amateur status would not be impacted. Then, the bodies announced in late October that all restrictions involving NIL would be lifted starting in 2022 as part of its modernization of the rules of amateur golf.
“Our drive was for access,” said Craig Winter, the USGA’s senior director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status. “Ultimately, for us lifting NIL rules, we believe there’s going to be so much more access to capital to play the game.”
3. Lara Tennant’s Badass U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Three-Peat
Tennant was unstoppable in 2021: The No. 1 seed bested an array of tough opponents at the Senior Am before being matched against best friend and seven-time champion Ellen Port. Amid a weather delay from the outer bands of Tropical Storm Nicholas, Tennant became the 12th player in USGA history to win three consecutive titles. According to Tennant, the trophy is staying in the same spot it has been for the last few years: “It’s a beautiful trophy, and it’s a beautiful reminder of how lucky I am.”
4. Ellen Port’s March on History
Port made headlines by beating out the guys at the Metropolitan Senior Amateur, becoming the event’s first female champion. The milestone win helped her find a game she felt had been missing for years.
5. Rachel Heck’s Freshman Semester to Remember
Before Rose Zhang pulled up to campus, Rachel Heck showed her future teammate how it was done by winning six titles in a stellar (Covid-delayed) first semester of competition during the spring of ’21. She finished the season as the NCAA individual champion. (Stanford’s first, in fact.) “When I was sitting in my room in January and they told us we couldn’t come back for another few weeks, there’s no way I pictured that I would be here in a few months,” she gushed after the big win.
6. A Walker and Curtis Cup Double Feature
Pandemic postponements pushed the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup onto the same year, and while the U.S. claimed each, the victories didn’t come without tension. A gastrointestinal illness hit both Walker Cup teams hard, landing 2020 U.S. Am champ Tyler Strafaci in the hospital before he returned to win his afternoon singles match. Hyperaggressive Ricky Castillo went 4-0 as the U.S. retained the Cup.
Two months later, the Curtis Cup winners were without homefield advantage, but they didn’t play like it. Staged in Wales, the event was tied at the end of Day 2. The U.S. swept the singles, with Rachel Kuehn grabbing the clinching point…23 years after her mom, Brenda Corrie Kuehn, did the same. The U.S. brought home the Cup for the first time in 13 years.
7. The First Official Graduating Class from PGA Tour U
Life after college can be hard—especially in golf—but PGA Tour U has made it a little easier for the top players in the men’s college game. The top five graduates from the U earned Korn Ferry Tour membership, with those ranking 6th through 15th got Forme Tour and Latinoamerica status. A few nascent pros received upgrades for their fine play: No. 9 Trevor Werbylo earned full KFT status after finishing as the Forme Tour points leader, while 10th-ranked Jonathan Brightwell was T2 at the Korn Ferry Q-School final stage to snag 12 guaranteed starts.
8. The “Garbage” Putter That James Piot Used to Win the U.S. Amateur
With a chip on his shoulder and wielding a Ping Piper H he dug out of the basement, James Piot enjoyed an unforgettable week at Oakmont. The No. 31 seed wiped the floor with opponents and conquered one of the toughest tests in golf, defeating North Carolina sophomore Austin Greaser 2 and 1 in the final. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” a beaming Piot said after his victory. “I mean, as an amateur, it’s the best thing you can do.”
9. Pepperdine Ends a 24-year Title Drought
The Waves washed over Grayhawk Golf Club like a tsunami. In a close championship match against Oklahoma, William Mouw and senior Clay Feagler were the stalwarts. Feagler went 3-0 in match play and secured the championship-clinching point. “It was kind of surreal to come down to the 18th hole and basically have the last point just kind of on my shoulders,” Feagler said. Not a bad sendoff to a pro career.
10. Ole Miss’ Julia Johnson’s Gift
As a reward for winning the 2021 NCAA team championship, Ole Miss was granted an exemption for one player into the LPGA Marathon Classic, to be chosen by the team. Coach Kory Henkes named senior Julia Johnson as the recipient, but Johnson decided a teammate who was about to turn pro deserved the exemption. Kennedy Swann accepted, in tears. Bringing Ole Miss its first national title and the exemption that followed are the perfect ending to a stellar college resume.
11. Megha Ganne: The U.S. Women’s Open Delight
Yuka Saso nabbed the trophy, but fellow teen sensation Ganne stole the hearts of viewers and media everywhere after shooting an opening-round 67 to share the lead at Olympic. Amid juggling calculus and tournament pressure, Ganne played her way into the final grouping on Sunday with Saso and Lexi Thompson. Bumping shoulders with the pros was no sweat for the 17-year-old amateur, who said “it kind of felt natural.” By the way, she’s headed to Stanford too.
12. Jensen Castle’s Cinderella Story at the U.S. Women’s Am
The final spot on the winning Curtis Cup roster was claimed by Kentucky Wildcat Jensen Castle, who became the first No. 63 seed to take the trophy. Castle battled a rib injury in the months leading up to the championship and said she slept for less than two hours the night before the final. She outlasted Arizona’s Vivian Hou in a taut 2 and 1 victory.
- Laird Shepherd’s British Amateur Championship Crusade
From start to finish, Laird Shepherd’s journey to the British Amateur Championship seemed impossible. From injuries to financial woes to a troubled swing, the 846th-ranked amateur faced one hurdle after another. Eight down after 17 holes against Monty Scowsill in the final, he seemed headed to defeat…until he pushed the 36-hole match into extra holes and came out on the other side.
“There’s so much that comes with winning, it’s almost impossible to really think about it until you’ve gotten some time away from the golf course,” said Shepherd, 23. Indeed, in a year, Shepherd went from working in a call center for Tesco to booking himself a Masters invite.
- Kajitani Holds Off the Older and Wiser for a Win at the ANWA
In the second iteration of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Japanese teen Tsubasa Kajitani followed up Jennifer Kupcho’s remarkable 2019 win with a thrilling performance of her own. Kajitani held off five other competitors to advance to a playoff against Emilia Migliaccio. Kajitani’s two-putted for par on the first hole to take home her biggest win. “I’ve played a few professional tournaments in Japan, as well as some big tournaments in America, but you can’t really compare with this tournament,” she said. Pretty big stuff from someone who didn’t expect to make the cut.
- Sensational Am Champ Louise Duncan Roars into Contention at Women’s British Open
It was wild enough that Louise Duncan won the British Women’s Am, 9 and 8, a record margin. Then, cashing in on the Women’s Open exemption that came with the victory, she turned even more heads. Duncan didn’t just make the cut, she also stunned the field with an impressive 68 on moving day to move into a four-way tie for fourth, just two strokes out of the lead. Although she posted a final-round 72, she notched a top 10 in her first career major, easily taking low-am honors.
- Welcome to College Golf…J.R. Smith?!
The college golfer with the largest following is nowhere near the top of the world amateur rankings, but he can flash a pair of NBA championship rings. Having hung up his NBA jersey, Smith headed back to school at North Carolina A&T in the fall of 2021, vividly documenting the experiences of both the student and athlete on his Twitter feed. From tutors to tournament golf, the liberal studies major played one event for the Aggies while earning a 4.0 GPA in his first semester.
- Gene Elliott Takes the Senior Am Title After 36 USGA Starts
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and again. Then keep trying. And try some more. Elliott, 59, is no stranger to victory, with 15 state titles and notable national amateur titles to his name; the only thing missing was a USGA championship. He finally prevailed in a final-match thriller against Jerry Gunthorpe, as Elliott never led until the final hole.
- The Announcement of the U.S. Adaptive Open
Unveiling an event that was four years in the making, the USGA announced the first U.S. Adaptive Open, a 54-hole stroke-play tournament open to a field of 96 professionals and amateurs who have physical, sensory or intellectual impairments. The tournament will be played at Pinehurst in July 2022.
- The Elite Amateur Golf Series Finally Arrives
Rumblings of the Elite Amateur Golf Series have been around for a while, but the merger of seven of the top elite amateur associations was announced in late 2021. The coordination of the amateur schedule will offer clarity after the college golf season and the retention of players in major summer events. The top five players in the points standings will earn exemptions into the final stage of U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open qualifying for the ensuing year.
- Nakajima Rises to the Occasion at Asia-Pacific Amateur
Keita Nakajima showed his dominance in Japan and then around the world. The stature of the No. 1-ranked amateur briefly came into question at the U.S. Amateur, where he failed to make match play on his biggest stage yet. Nakajima quickly bounced back and won the Panasonic Open and then the Asia-Pacific Amateur to reaffirm his place as No. 1 — and nab a coveted Masters invite.
- LPGA Q-School’s Early Christmas Presents
A three-month pilgrimage to LPGA membership ended favorably for quite a few collegians in December, as Gina Kim (Duke), Brooke Matthews (Arkansas) and twins Vivian and Yu-Sang Hou (Arizona) earned LPGA membership at the final stage of LPGA qualifying…all while balancing schoolwork during the busy fall semester.