HARRISON, N.Y. — The theme of the week at the 2021 U.S. Women’s Amateur was chaos.
The defending champion and the top-ranked women’s amateur in the world, Rose Zhang, was eliminated in the Round of 64 by someone who didn’t hit a single college golf shot as a freshman. Seven of the top eight seeds were sent home in match play before Thursday. And to top it all off, the head-to-head 36-hole final featured two Wildcats from Kentucky and Arizona.
Standing alone at the end of a topsy-turvy rollercoaster bracket was Jensen Castle, who snuck into the match play portion of the championship at Westchester Country Club as the No. 63 seed. She was also 248th in the women’s world amateur ranking before the event. It was a 12-foot birdie putt on the 35th hole on Sunday that clinched the 2&1 victory over Yu-Chiang (Vivian) Hou, finishing the day off in style for the Wildcat from Kentucky.
As amazed as the fans and viewers at home may have been by the result at the end of the week, Castle may have been even more surprised to be holding the “heavy” Robert Cox Trophy. The 20-year-old from West Columbia, S.C. didn't bring enough outfits to New York and has been camping out at a friend's house on an air mattress after spending the first three nights at a hotel.
“It still hasn’t registered,” Castle said after the win. “It feels like just another tournament but then I step back and I’m like, this is a USGA event with so much history. All of the exemptions I didn’t even realize. I was just lucky I could play.”
Both finalists were returning from injuries entering the U.S. Women’s Amateur—a partially torn labrum in the left hip for Hou and a banged-up rib for Castle. But in one of the most arduous weeks in women’s amateur golf, the injured pair maneuvered their way around the near century-old club throughout the week to get exempt into the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles even before a resolution came Sunday in the championship.
To survive and advance to Sunday was one thing, but the competition didn’t get any easier on the culminating day of the event. As part of the 36-hole final, Hou built a 2-up lead entering the second 18, which promptly vanished when Castle picked up three of the first four holes in the afternoon following about a 90-minute break.
“It was a shaky first 18 and I was swinging in fear of where it could end up,” Castle said. “Then I came in and registered, ‘Alright, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re two back. Go after it.’ I told one of the little boys on 15 whenever I didn’t make the birdie, ‘They’ll fall eventually.’”
After four birdies through the first half of the day, Castle started the second 18 with three early ones, on the first, third and fourth holes, respectively. The intermittent drizzle and wind gusts didn’t do much to frazzle the incoming Junior at Kentucky.
It was at the turn for the final nine where Castle really took control of the championship. A misjudged par putt by Hou that rocketed past the ninth hole gave Castle a two-up lead, and even though Castle underestimated an uphill putt on the tenth, Hou couldn’t capitalize on the mishap and missed her birdie opportunity.
Although she didn’t finish with the Robert Cox Trophy, it was an extraordinary run for Hou, who did not play the 17th and 18th holes after stroke play until her weekend matches. With her sister and college teammate on the bag, Hou dispatched her opponents one after another throughout the week and became the first University of Arizona golfer to make the Women’s Amateur final since Laura Ianello, now the coach in Tucson.
As the third No. 63 seed to ever win a USGA title, Castle nearly didn’t make it to Wednesday, let alone Sunday. She survived a 12-for-2 playoff on Tuesday night to advance to match play and even with that escape, her semifinals opponent and individual NCAA Champ Rachel Heck had a chance to end the Cinderella run with a putt-for-the-win opportunity on the 18th. Heck missed and Castle put her away on the ensuing extra hole.
Castle and Hou both earned exemptions into the U.S. Women's Open next year with their championship match appearance. (Darren Carroll/USGA)
After the Heck win and before Sunday’s 36-hole march, Castle got minimal sleep on the aforementioned air mattress. It seems to have worked just fine in the end.
“I had one hour and 45 minutes of sleep last night,” Castle said. “My Apple Watch tracked it and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sleep tonight either.”
One of the perks of winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur for Castle is a berth on the American Curtis Cup team. Held at Conwy Golf Club in Wales at the end of August, she hopes to put her injury behind her in time to compete in the biennial match.
“I don’t even know where that is,” said Castle, in regards to traveling to Wales. “I’ve never been out of the country. I’m just excited to represent the United States. That’s always been a dream of mine.”