In early January, Kate Smith, 21, was relaxing in her apartment in Lincoln, quarantining before the start of her final golf season as a Nebraska Cornhusker. She started reflecting on her collegiate career and what's next for her as a golfer. And then, Smith received an email notification from UPS: "Augusta National sent you a package."
Smith immediately called her mom back home in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where the package had been delivered. "Mom, you got to get home as fast as you can," Smith remembered telling her mother that afternoon.
Smith knew what was waiting for her back home in Minnesota.
Just two months earlier, while traveling back from a golf tournament in Waco, Texas, she received an email notifying her that she was "in consideration" for the 2021 Augusta National Women's Amateur. Smith was ecstatic for the consideration.
"I just finished a tournament where I played really poorly. But I thought, 'OK, Augusta still thinks that I have a chance to play at a high level, so I need to prove it,'" Smith said. "I remember talking to my dad, and he said, 'Hey, you got an email from Augusta National. Whatever happens from here, that's pretty cool.'"
As soon as her mom parked in the driveway, on that January day, she called Smith. "She saw there was an envelope, and she was opening it for me over FaceTime," Smith said. "And I could tell my mom was so nervous. And I just freaked out when I saw that green envelope. You know exactly what it is because it is so iconic."
After opening the green envelope, Smith's mom read the invitation to her: "The Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club cordially invites you to participate in the Two Thousand and Twenty-One Augusta National Women's Amateur to be held the thirty-first of March through the third of April ..."
Smith, a fifth-year senior at Nebraska who recently captured her first collegiate individual title in early March 2021 and holds Nebraska's career stroke average record of 73.44 over 116 rounds, was officially invited to play at the second annual Augusta National Women's Amateur (ANWA). Within 24 hours, Smith received the hard copy invitation in her own hands in Nebraska. And it all became real.
"My mom sent it overnight, and it cost about $80, but it was so worth it," Smith, who provided her parents' permanent address to Augusta because of the uncertainties around COVID-19, said. "Opening it myself, and holding it in my owns hands, I think that was probably one of the best moments. I've had the invite on my nightstand ever since. It's been a really great reminder to me that I'm playing at a high level and to keep working hard because it's not going to waste."
Smith, currently ranked No. 134 on the World Amateur Golf Rankings, will be one of 82 amateur players from across the globe competing for the ANWA trophy from March 31 to April 3, 2021, in Augusta, Georgia.
Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Fred Ridley announced the creation of the ANWA in 2018. In 2019, the world's former top-ranked amateur Jennifer Kupcho defeated Maria Fassi and became the first champion of the ANWA. The 2020 Amateur was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The amateur tournament, happening the week before the Masters, will be played over 54 holes of stroke play with a cut taking place after 36 holes and advancing the leading 30 players to the final round at Augusta National Golf Club. The first 36 holes will be played over two days on the Island and Bluff nines at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The entire field will play an official practice round at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, April 2, before the top 30 competitors who made the cut will play on Saturday.
As of March 27, 36 of the top 50 amateurs in the world will compete at the second edition of ANWA, including Rose Zhang, No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf rankings, who tied for 17th place at the inaugural event two years ago at the age of 15 and No. 2 Linn Grant, 21, who tied for 23rd at the 2020 U.S. Women's Open. There will be 30 competitors returning from 2019.
When Smith wakes up and looks at her ANWA invitation on her nightstand most mornings, she feels speechless. "I wake up every morning, and I'm surprised it's there. It's one of those things where every day I remind myself how lucky I am to be in this position," Smith said. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota and working at her parents' local nine-hole golf course, Smith never imagined that she would have the opportunity to compete at Augusta.
"My brother played golf in college, and my dad plays golf, and if I pictured something at Augusta National, I pictured my brother playing there or my dad playing there. But, unfortunately, I don't think I ever pictured myself there," Smith said about why this invite means so much to her. "As a kid, I didn't even get to have that dream, and now, little girls today can dream of going there and playing at a high level."
When Ridley announced the inaugural event, Smith was studying with her teammates and thought about how an event like ANWA would be the "pinnacle" of an amateur golfer's career. She also realized that she needed to step up her game if she wanted to actually play at Augusta. When she didn't receive an invitation to the inaugural season, she thought, "maybe next year." Now, three years later after Ridley's 2018 announcement, Smith will finally compete at Augusta.
"To have this happen right before my last season as a Husker, and to know that all the work that I've put in the last four and a half years and my whole career, I now get to enjoy how that pays off into this awesome invitation," Smith said. "And to be treated, as a woman, at such a high level in a golf community is really special. Not only are we playing Augusta National, but we're being treated like anybody else on one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the country. That's huge."
University of Denver sophomore and No. 95 ranked Anna Zanusso never thought she'd compete at Augusta National. And some days, it still doesn't feel real.
"It was a dream [to play at Augusta like the men], but I never thought it could ever happen," Zanusso, 20, said. "It's always been on the back of my mind."
In January 2020, the Castelfranco Veneto, Italy native, received a phone call from Augusta that changed her life.
"I received a phone call, and I missed the phone call, to be honest," Zanusso recalled. "When I saw that it was from Augusta on my phone, I said, 'Oh, my God, I need to call back immediately.' I called back and they told me that I would be in the field. At that time, I was practicing with my team. I just let all the emotions come out of me."
Zanusso's head coach, Lindsay Kuhle, captured the moment on her camera phone. With tears streaming down her face, Zanusso embraced her teammates in a big group hug. And when Kuhle asked her, "Where are you going, Z?" Zanusso replied, "Augusta." The video of Zanusso spread all across the internet. The video showcased the impact of what it means for women to have the opportunity to compete at Augusta.
A few days after receiving the phone call, Zanusso received the paper invitation in the mail. While opening it, Zanusso's hands were trembling. "I was really shaking and that was crazy. I opened it so carefully. I said, 'I'm going to keep this for my whole life.' It was just so pretty, and I cried again."
Within a few months, Zanusso went from emotional ecstasy to crushing doubt. After learning that the 2020 event would be canceled because of the pandemic, Zanusso started to question whether or not she'd ever have the opportunity to play at Augusta. There were too many unknowns.
"I was really scared of not being able to play in 2021. That was my first thought," Zanusso said. "But also, I was kind of upset because I was having a great season. I felt ready to play Augusta."
In January 2021, Zanusso received her second ANWA invitation in the mail. This time, there was no viral video. But the emotions remained.
"I was with my coach because I had it shipped to her office," Zanusso said. "I opened it with her and my hands were shaking again. I was so excited because it said this year it's going to happen for sure. It's real. It's going to happen."
This week, Zanusso will represent her home country as one of 5 women playing from Italy at Augusta. She might have two invitations, the 2020 invite stored away with her parents in Italy and the 2021 invite framed next to her bed, but she still believes that the moment won't fully feel real until she's at Augusta.
"It's a big opportunity, and I really hope that in the future more and more women will have the chance to compete there and not just play, but to compete there because I feel like women deserve to have more opportunities and equal opportunities like the men," Zanusso said. "I hope that in the following years, not just women's amateur, but also women's professional players will have the chance to play such a major tournament."
Despite outcries from professional women golfers, fans and media members, the ANWA currently remains the only women's tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. In 2019, at the annual club chairman's new conference, Ridley responded to these outcries by stating, "Our focus throughout our history has been on, as far as our effort to promote the game outside the Masters, have always been on amateur golf."
Ridley added, "By promoting women amateurs, the future stars of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, we'd like to think that that is something that's going to benefit them, as well."
This year, Zanusso is one of many women who initially received invitations to the 2020 event. Included in that group is 17-year-old Paris Hilinski, one of the youngest competitors in the field who has made her mark in amateur golf in just a few short years.
When Hilinski took her first golf lesson four years ago, she wasn't sure what her journey through golf would look like. She never pictured Augusta National upon first swinging a club. But she also didn't rule out the possibility, especially after Ridley announced the creation of the ANWA in 2018.
"When they announced this women's event, I was really excited because obviously I was so new to it and I wasn't ranked that high, but I felt that I was progressing at a pace where I was like, 'I think I will be able to play in it,'" Hilinski said.
It wouldn't be long before the former soccer and basketball player found herself nationally ranked and competing against some of the best women amateur and professional players -- not to mention gaining social media fame with her unique collection of sneakers (she has almost 100 pairs) and on-the-course fashion.
Hilinski, who works with world-renowned golf coach Claude Harmon III, also the former swing coach of PGA player Brooks Koepka, played in the 2019 U.S. Women's Open and became the second youngest player to compete at the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in 2019.
Despite being on a fast-track with her playing career, Hilinski wasn't sure if she was going to be invited to the 2020 ANWA. After finishing third in the ANNIKA Invitational in January 2020, one of her friends mentioned that she'd received an email from Augusta about being invited to ANWA. Happy for her friend, Hilinski couldn't help but wonder if that same email would hit her inbox. "I had a good year. I was playing good," Hilinski said.
On the drive home from the tournament, Hilinksi received a new email.
"It was someone from Augusta who had written and asked if I could give them a call or if my parents could give them a call [because I'm a minor]," she remembered. "And I was like, 'We'll call right now. Whatever they want.' They asked if I'd like to participate in the 2020 Augusta National Women's Amateur. I was speechless. I don't think I said anything for the first minute."
After receiving both a verbal and physical invitation, Hilinksi did everything to get prepared for Augusta. Due to her homeschool schedule, she was able to travel throughout Florida and play events during the month of February. Then, everything started to shut down. And she knew it wouldn't be long before ANWA was canceled.
"I was mentally prepared to play, but looking at what was going on and everything, that was extremely important to me," Hilinski said about her emotional response to the cancellation. "I had to take a step back and understand that what was going on in the world was more important and that this tournament will probably happen again or will come back at some point. I hoped so, at least."
Hilinski, who has asthma, spent the last year staying healthy and safe while continuing to dedicate herself to her golf game. And in the back of her mind, she continued to remain hopeful about playing at Augusta.
One year after receiving her first invitation to Augusta, Hilinski received her second official invite to Augusta this January.
"I think I was even more grateful for the opportunity because I think we don't realize how fast things can be taken away from us," Hilinski said. "I think COVID and the cancellation of the event last year made me take a step back and appreciate all of these opportunities that I have."
Going into Augusta, Hilinski knows that other competitors may have more years on her or more experience at big tournaments or better rankings (she's currently ranked No. 330). But, she also knows that they all received the same invitation.
And her goal remains the same this year as it did last year: "I want to win."