A Rousing Day One at the U.S. Women’s Amateur
A hometown hero and reborn Bel-Air Country Club were the stars as L.A. hosts another blockbuster golf event
By Alan Shipnuck
August 7, 2023
LOS ANGELES—There are many memorable aeries in the City of Angels: Mulholland Drive, with the the lights of downtown twinkling in the distance; the Hollywood sign up on Mount Lee, a beacon for hikers and all the dreamers down below; Griffith Observatory, where it feels as if you can dance right into the constellations, like the star-crossed lovers in La La Land. But if you’re a Bruin, nothing stirs the soul like the like the first tee of Bel-Air County Club, where the aiming point in the distance is the graceful buildings on the UCLA campus. (My target is always Royce Hall, site of one of my long-ago journalism classes.) But for the first two days of stroke play qualifying at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, during which 156 players will be whittled down to the 64 who advance to match play, a two-tee start is being utilized, meaning half the field each day has to begin their round on the 10th hole, one of the great par-3s in all of golf. Number 10 at Bel-Air demands a full-blooded carry over a chasm, 205 yards uphill, to a vertiginous green. It is a terrifying way to start a round, and on an overcast Monday morning, UCLA junior Caroline Canales (above) had the added pressure of striking the ceremonial first tee shot in the 123rd U.S. Women’s Amateur. Bel-Air is one of UCLA’s home courses and Canales estimates she has played it at least 100 times, but nothing quite prepared her for this opening tee shot. “It was a nice honor and I’m really grateful for the opportunity, but I definitely felt some nerves there,” she said.
Canales made an impressively confident swing but her 5-wood was not quite enough club. Still, she saved par with a deft pitch and was off and running, setting the first round pace with a 4-under 66 that left her in a tie for the lead, with Briana Chacon, a Southern California native who will be a fifth-year senior at Orgeon.
Canales is a walking billboard for what UCLA is all about—a classically trained pianist who last season was named a Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) All-American scholar for the second straight year. She was all Pac-10 as a sophomore but knows that the U.S. Women’s Amateur represents an entirely different level of prestige. Just ask Jensen Castle, the surprise winner two years ago. “It doesn’t get old, that’s for sure, seeing myself everywhere, whether it’s photos with the trophy or [being spotlighted among] players to watch,” says Castle. “Especially knowing three years ago, nobody had ever heard my name, I was a complete underdog. Now players in this field who are like 12 years old or right out of high school and they’re like, ‘Wait, I know who that is, she won that one year.’ It’s really cool.”
Sharing equal billing this week is the reborn host venue. Bel-Air dates to 1926 and was designed by the god of Los Angeles golf, George Thomas, who also created Los Angeles Country Club, site of the recent U.S. Open, and Riviera, a popular pick as the best course on the PGA Tour. Bel-Air has long been celebrated as one of the most mind-bending routings in golf as the course snakes through various canyons, necessitating tunnels, an elevator ride and the famous bridge that crosses the void between the 10th tee and green. Bel-Air hosted the 1976 U.S. Amateur and 2004 Senior Amateur but over the years had lost its architectural integrity. A restoration by Tom Doak in 2018 returned the course to its former glory and the USGA signed on for three championships, including the 2026 Curtis Cup and ’30 U.S. Mid-Amateur. This Women’s Amateur, then, is an important barometer and so far the players have been wowed by the purity of the playing surfaces, the speed of the greens and the diverse questions the course asks.
“I feel like this is definitely a ball-strikers’ course, for sure,” says Chacon. “People who strike the ball well are definitely going to have a little bit of an edge. I think it’s really important to know where to place the ball on the greens and also on the fairways and just be smart about where you’re placing the balls.”
A hometown hero atop the leaderboard, a stirring setting, the residual glamour of being in La La Land—this Women’s Amateur is already off to a heckuva start.
The USGA is a partner to the Fire Pit Collective but has no editorial oversight.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.