One of the most competitive rounds in women's golf might not take place at LPGA events.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, the Stanford women's golf team plays qualifiers to determine the top five players to compete in upcoming tournaments.
The competitors include five of the top 66 players in the world, according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking, including No. 1 Rose Zhang and No. 3 Rachel Heck.
"It's pretty cool," Stanford coach Anne Walker said. "I feel like I'm watching a mini tournament every Tuesday and Thursday. You just never know who's going to go low or who's going to end up on top for those five spots to go to the tournament."
This week, five Stanford players -- Zhang, Heck, Angelina Ye, Aline Krauter and Caroline Sturdza -- will compete to play a competitive round at one of golf's most famous courses in the Augusta National Women's Amateur.
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Megha Ganne, the No. 16-ranked amateur in the world, who has signed to play for the Cardinal next season, also is in the field. A sixth current Stanford player, Brooke Seay, was also invited to the ANWA. Instead, she will compete this week in the The Chevron Championship, the LPGA's first major of the season, at Mission Hills Country Club.
Stanford players and Ganne make up nearly 10% of the 72 players who will be competing in the ANWA.
"I just look at it as a moment in time," Walker said. "I've coached 20 years, and I could never have imagined a year like this, that I'd be so fortunate as a coach to know these kids, have them play for Stanford and be part of their journey. I'm just trying to enjoy it and realize that it may never be like this again. Maybe it will, but it's hard to fathom [having] such a cool roster again. I'm really proud of them."
The first two rounds of the 54-hole ANWA will be played Wednesday and Thursday at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Georgia. The field will be cut to 30 players after 36 holes. Every participant, whether they make the cut or not, gets to play a practice round on Friday at Augusta National. On Saturday, the top 30 will compete to become the third winner of this event.
Heck, a sophomore from Memphis, tied for third in last year's ANWA with a 54-hole total of 2-over 218, one shot behind winner Tsubasa Kajitani of Japan. Zhang, a then-senior at Pacific Academy in Irvine, California, also tied for third.
"I'm so pumped," Heck said. "After playing last year, I've just been counting down the days. I cannot wait to get back there. It was amazing last year thinking about all the big names who have walked those fairways before. It's pretty unreal. I don't think you can fully understand what it's like until you're actually there playing and going around Amen Corner."
The Cardinal's ultracompetitive qualifiers at the Stanford Golf Course should have her more than prepared for the ANWA. Walker determines the top four players for an upcoming tournament with a handicap system that includes the six most recent rounds. She uses a coach's pick for the fifth spot.
"I honestly think the qualifiers are sometimes even tougher than the tournaments," Ye said. "I think it's great. It keeps me competitive all the time and pushes me to be better in practice."
In October, Zhang became the first Stanford player -- men or women -- to win each of her or his first three collegiate starts. And, yes, that includes Tiger Woods, who won 11 times in two seasons with the Cardinal in 1995 and 1996. Zhang has four top-five finishes in three starts this spring, including a pair of runners-up.
"It was definitely not expected," said Zhang, who tied for 17th at the inaugural ANWA in 2019. "I would say it came as a really big surprise because I thought I would have to transition as a freshman into this new world."
Zhang's 69.48 scoring average in 21 rounds would break the Stanford career record of 72.31, set by Mariah Stackhouse from 2013 to 2016, by nearly three strokes. Zhang shot 8-under 64 in the final round of the Juli Inkster Invitational this month.
In August 2020, Zhang became the first player to win the U.S. Women's Amateur before the Rolex Girls Junior Championship, which she won later the same month by a whopping six shots. She has already competed in four LPGA majors, making the cut in the 2021 Amundi Evian Championship. She's one of only three two-time winners of the McCormack Medal, which is awarded to the world's top amateur player.
"She's really, really good," Walker said. "She's boring, I'll tell you that much. She's a very boring player and that's the greatest compliment I can give her. It's kind of middle of the fairway, middle of the green, one putt or two putts. It just continues like that. And then the one or two holes where she misses the green, what does she do? She chips it up and makes the putt. That's what makes her so good."
As good as Zhang has been in her first season at Stanford, Heck won the program's first NCAA individual championship in 2021. That capped a remarkable freshman season in which she won six times and set an NCAA single-season scoring record of 69.72.
"The day I got back home from college, I went and set the [NCAA title] trophy in my room," Heck said. "The very next day, I go downstairs and it's on the mantel in the living room. My dad's like, 'I'm going to look at this every single day. I'm never going to get over it.' No matter what happens the rest of the season or my golf career, that's something I'll always have, which is really special."
Heck has won twice more this year and her total of eight victories in less than two seasons is tied for second most in Stanford history. Earlier this month, the Cardinal set an NCAA record with a 54-hole team total of 50 under at the Gunrock Invitational in Sacramento. Heck led the way at 18 under.
"Having the players we have makes everyone better," Heck said. "We push each other, we motivate each other every single day. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of maybe getting too competitive, too jealous while fighting for a spot on the team. But at the end of the day, we all just sit back and think about how grateful we are to be a part of this team."
Off the course, Heck is a budding painter and plans to join the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard after college. She became interested in joining the military when a good friend in high school decided to attend the U.S. Military Academy.
"I started learning about the military just to be supportive, and I fell in love with it," Heck said. "I knew it was something I wanted to incorporate into my life in some way. It really teaches you so much about discipline and teamwork. It helps you on the golf course because it makes you realize that this is not about you and this is a team you're playing for. It's taught me so many lessons I can take in every aspect of my life."
Krauter, from Stuttgart, Germany, moved to the United States when she was 15 years old to attend Saddlebrook Prep in Wesley Chapel, Florida. She finished in the top eight in every tournament in 2021and in five of seven this season. It will be her first appearance in the ANWA.
"I think it's crazy that this is the only tournament Augusta hosts other than the Masters," Krauter said. "I think it's great that it's a women's event. I think it raises awareness that there are women playing golf and really good women -- and that we can definitely compete. Obviously, for us, just playing at Augusta is going to be an incredible opportunity."
None of the women are as familiar with Augusta National as Ganne, a senior at Holmdel High School in New Jersey. She competed in the Drive, Chip & Putt finals four times and missed the cut in the ANWA last year.
"It means so much," Ganne said. "Obviously, I grew up watching the Masters on TV, never at the time knowing I was going to get an opportunity to play there. Everyone has incredible stories, and it's covered all over TV and everyone tunes in. It's just a great way to spread the game and put on a really good show."
Ganne put on quite a show in the U.S. Women's Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco in June. As a 17-year-old, she grabbed a share of the first-round lead with a 4-under 67 and was in the final group on Sunday. She finished as the low amateur and tied for 14th.
A participant in the First Tee Program in New Jersey, Ganne played on four national teams last season: the Met Golf Association's Carey Cup, Junior Ryder Cup, Junior Solheim Cup and as a non-playing alternate at the Curtis Cup. She tied for sixth at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in her most recent start in March.
"With that breakout in the U.S. Open last year, she became kind of a household name," Walker said. "She's got a ton of confidence. She's smart as they come, has great wit and is quick on her feet. She's certainly hungry for the next level. Because of her maturity, it feels like she has been a junior golfer for way longer than she really has."
An important part of Walker's job is not only getting so many talented players to leave their egos in the clubhouse and succeed in a team setting, but also to help blend personalities from so many different countries and cultures. In addition to five players from the U.S., Stanford has players from Belgium, Germany, China and Switzerland. Ganne's parents are from India. To help the women get to know each other, Walker uses a buddy system in which players meet teammates for coffee or lunch.
Sturdza, a freshman, grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and had traveled to the U.S. only for vacations and tournaments before enrolling at Stanford. Her older brother, Max, a golfer at Florida Atlantic, will be her caddie during the ANWA.
"I had never spent a lot of time here, so I never spent a lot of time with American people," Sturdza said. "I'd never really had much interaction with someone from China. It's just amazing to learn about new cultures and learn from them. It's amazing to see how different we can be and yet how similar we can be. It's just a lot of fun to be on such a diverse team."
Regardless of what happens at Augusta National this week, the Stanford players will have unfinished business when they return to campus. They have one more tournament and then the Pac-12 championship before starting play at an NCAA regional.
The Cardinal reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA championships last season, but fell short of winning the program's first national title since 2015.
"We try to create a learning environment where we can help them understand that this is just a small part of the journey and they're on a timeline that goes way past Stanford golf," Walker said. "We're just trying to make sure they move along that timeline, that they're open to new experiences and new ideas, so that they can maybe go to places they haven't even taken their games yet."
That place will be Augusta National this weekend.