Aiming for Augusta

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University of Georgia enters three golfers in upcoming Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship

Story by R. Alan Richardson

It would be quite a story to have only one golfer invited to one of the world’s premier women’s amateur golf events, the 2020 Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. To have three is simply astounding.

“It’s surreal,” says Josh Brewer, the eighth-year head coach of UGA women’s golf program. “To have our players at Augusta National in the premier event of women’s golf is amazing. You know how hard they’ve worked to deserve that honor.”

And for those three to be current freshmen and a signee bodes well for UGA’s future as the program moves to the top of women’s college golf and continues to attract talent from around the world.

The freshmen invitees are Caterina Don of Pinerolo, Italy, and Candice Mahe of Gourin, France. Signee Isabella Holpfer of Vienna, Austria, will be coming to UGA in the fall.

Candice Mahe, who joined the Bulldogs in January as a mid-year enrollee, is one of three Georgia golfers who will compete in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Mahe, a native of France, qualified for the field by being one of the top-30 non-Americans in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.

The field for the Augusta National Women’s Am exists of 72 players. The top 30 non-American and top 30 American players are invited along with 12 other invitations that go to players winning tournaments around the world. 

“You know when you get there you are going to compete against the best amateur players in the world,” says Don. “There’s probably not a better field anywhere in amateur golf. I’m at number six right now in that field so it gives you a little push when you wake up in the morning. You just have to push a little harder to do better.”

Don was invited to play in last year’s inaugural Augusta National Women’s Am and finished tied for 12th in the 2019 tournament that was seen by many all over the world.

Mahe, who joined the team in January, remembers watching Don in the Augusta National Women’s Am last year and setting her sights on qualifying.

“I was playing in another tournament in France and I saw it last year on the TV in the clubhouse that day,” she says. “I talked to my coach and told him that was my goal after watching it that day. At the time I was somewhere around 100 or 110 in the World rankings, and now I’m at 35, so this year I can play and I’m so happy to play there. I’m so excited.”

Don says her experience at Augusta National last year was “unreal.”

“For someone who’s always been playing golf, the Masters is like the Super Bowl or March Madness,” she says. “Augusta National has always been about the guys. It’s ‘gentlemen only’ and there were no female members for a long time. To open the door like this to women’s amateur golf, I was really surprised.”

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur, according to Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley, was established to inspire greater interest and participation in the women’s game by creating a new, exciting and rewarding pathway for these players.

“Just what they have done for women’s golf at the Masters is amazing,” says Brewer. “They’ve made this the premier event in amateur golf. You could even argue it rivals professional events on the LPGA.” He explains that last year’s Augusta National Am forced the LPGA to change the dates of one of their majors since four of the legends in women’s golf opted to play in Augusta over the major.

“That tells you the power that’s about two hours from Athens,” he says.

Mahe is busy preparing for her debut at Augusta National, practicing every chance she gets.

“I don’t want to regret anything. I want to be ready and sharp,” she says.

Mahe has had a chance to preview and play Augusta National earlier in the season and says the course was fantastic. She was also able to work with the local caddie who will assist her in the final round.  

“He was Jennifer Kupcho’s caddie last year when she won the tournament, so I hope that brings me good luck,” she says, laughing. “I really trust him.”

The third golfer to enjoy an invite to the prestigious tournament is incoming freshman, Isabella Holpfer. Currently she is ranked in the top 50 amateurs in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, according the UGA website. Holpfer burst onto the scene by becoming the youngest golfer ever to win the Austrian Match Play Championship in 2014. She has since gone on to win the 2015 Irish Women’s Amateur, the 2018 Slovenian Amateur and the 2018 English Women’s Amateur. All told, Holpfer has recorded 28 top-10 finishes in 82 events since 2014.

Brewer says Holfper is a consistent player who will bring depth to the program in the coming years.

Josh Brewer, who is in his eighth season at Georgia, has led the Bulldogs to 13 team titles, including the 2015 NCAA Bryan Regional. During his tenure, nine UGA golfers have combined to win 14 individual titles.

Brewer, a former NCAA golfer at Indiana University who finished second for the Hoosiers to help them secure a one-stroke victory at the 1998 Big Ten Championships, is working to continue building upon the college program that has launched successful tour players over the years.

“When I started at Georgia, I tried to look at what’s been done here. You can walk the hallways here at the Boyd Center and understand the women’s history and I’ve tried to build on that. I’ve tried to piggyback on the men’s program and what they’ve done at the professional level because people know the men’s side. They know Bubba. They know Keith Mitchell who just won. I’ve just tried to sell that from day one; You can come here and be a tour player in women’s golf. We’re starting to create our own high-flying legacy and that’s what we want.”

Part of building that solid program means traveling the world, seeking out top players, and inviting them to visit the University of Georgia.

“I had been playing golf for a while and traveled around the world, but never been to the States until coming to visit at Georgia. When Josh (Brewer) talked to me the first time, it was after the World Juniors in Canada. I was considering a few other schools, but when I walked into Georgia, I don’t know, it just felt like home. People are so nice. The best players on another team will ask you how the team did or a professor might congratulate you in front of the entire class.”

Mahe had a similar experience. “I had so many universities to choose from but I had friends here and I really wanted a good team with a good spirit,” she says. “I came for a visit in the summer last year and I was like, ‘I love this place.’ My teammates have such a great team spirit and the competition is so good. We really want to do something great this year.”

This dedication is what Brewer says makes this group of players stand out. They have found the balance that must be struck between being a student and an athlete and are willing to pay the high price it takes to be successful at this level in a player’s career.

“It’s not easy,” says Don. “There’s going to be a day where everything goes right – you shoot 65 and hole every putt. But, there’s also going to be days when nothing goes right, days when you do not even want to play golf or hit balls at seven in the morning. There are those nights when you have to study until two in the morning and have a workout the next day at 6:30 a.m. But, you have to go,” says Don. “So, when golf is not going great, you might think about all your friends going out to have fun, and, here I am in the cold weather hitting balls. But, you get much more from it than the price you pay. I get to come here to the states and get a degree and play golf, and hopefully get to be on the LPGA. One of the more satisfying things is when little girls come up and say that they want to be like me when they get to college. That is amazing. All you did is help them see that at 19, you can prefer to practice your sport to get to this point instead of going out and partying. That’s actually amazing.”

Caterina Don won individual medalist honors at the 2019 European Girls’ Team Championship and helped Italy to the team title at the same event in the 2016 and 2018.

And Brewer agrees.

“There are a lot of distractions in Athens, but these young ladies are here to play golf. They’re on a mission,” he says. “It will shock me if they don’t bring back an SEC or NCAA Championship trophy. These are great kids and it’s a blast to see them reach their goals.” 

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