August 11, 2008

Patience Rewarded

Duke senior Amanda Blumenherst tops NCAA champ Azahara Munoz to win the U.S. Women's Amateur

Blumenherst atoned for her '07 loss with a comeback win in the final.

Blumenherst atoned for her '07 loss with a comeback win in the final.

It's a question for Duke's scholarly undergrads to explore in philosophy class some day, perhaps later this fall when Amanda Blumenherst has returned to campus for her senior year and can moderate the discussion. Say you've won college golf's player-of-the-year award a record three times running, helped your school claim two NCAA titles and earned 11 individual tournament victories in three years. Would winning the 108th U.S. Women's Amateur, then, be merely the cherry on top of an already heaping sundae, or is it actually the ice cream itself?

For much of the week at Eugene CC, the 21-year-old from Scottsdale insisted a first individual national title would be more maraschino than Häagen-Dazs. And in the early moments Sunday after her 2-and-1 triumph over Spain's Azahara Munoz, the reigning NCAA champion, in the tournament's 36-hole final, Blumenherst still contended her dessert would have tasted no different had the result been the same as a year earlier and she lost the championship match.

However, as the sun faded in central Oregon, and humility was given the rest of the night off, the best American women's amateur golfer in more than a decade eventually revealed the personal satisfaction of her accomplishment.

"Going into this tournament, I knew this was my last [USGA] amateur event, and I wanted to play well," said Blumenherst, who intends to turn professional after graduation next spring. "I wanted to prove to everyone that I wasn't overrated or that those awards that I had gotten in college weren't kind of a coincidence or something that was given to me. I wanted to show everybody that this is the place I earned."

It wasn't just the feat--becoming the sixth person to win the Robert Cox Cup after losing in the final the previous year--but how it was achieved that speaks to Blumenherst's talent, much less her growth as a golfer. "People have known for some time she's good enough to win the big one," explained Duke coach Dan Brooks. "Sometimes I think wanting it so bad, it would lead to frustration [on her part]."

Indeed, for a woman who has showed an ability to take things slowly--Blumenherst could have cashed in on her collegiate success long ago but instead focused on getting a degree--one of the biggest knocks has been a penchant to press the rare times things aren't going her way.

It wasn't until the 31st hole--nearly eight hours into the match--that she finally took a lead on Munoz, a senior-to-be at Arizona State trying to join Vicki Goetze (1992) as the second person to win the NCAA and Women's Amateur titles in the same year. But that hardly seemed to faze Blumenherst.

"She's moved to a new level of patience," Brooks said. "She didn't let things get her down. I didn't detect any frustration. That's the greatest step that I think she's taken."

Blumenherst hinted at this discipline in her first-round match with USC's Lizette Salas. Sharing medalist honors in stroke-play qualifying with Stephanie Na at four-under 140--thanks to a championship-record 66 in the opening round--Blumenherst found herself 3 down after four holes to Salas. Diligently, though, she worked her way back into the match, eventually winning 2 and 1.

After beating 15-year-old semifinal opponent Erynne Lee, 3 and 2, to reach the championship match, Blumenherst needed similar fortitude against Munoz, going 2 down after three holes with three straight bogeys. She eventually steadied her play, finishing the morning 18 just 1 down after shooting the equivalent of even par.

After Munoz, who knocked off best friend and countrywoman Belen Mozo, 4 and 3, in their semifinal, chipped in for a birdie from 50 feet on the 23rd hole to go back to 2 up on Blumenherst, the Spaniard gave away the 24th by missing a birdie putt from three feet, one of two errors the 20-year-old won't soon forget.

The other miscue came on the 31st hole, Blumenherst having squared the match three holes prior. Munoz looked as if she was in control, her ball in a bunker short of the par-5, 521-yard hole in two while Blumenherst was lying three in the rough short of the green. In a classic match-play reversal, Munoz proceeded to skull her bunker shot over the green, chip her fourth 12 feet by the hole and miss the par putt, giving Blumenherst the lead when she got up and down for par.

Blumenherst reached the par-5 485-yard 34th in two and made birdie to go 2 up. Fittingly, she saved par from the bunker on the 35th to close out the match, having gone a perfect five-for-five in sand saves Sunday and finishing the second 18 in four under par. "She got up and down from everywhere," said Munoz, who shot the equivalent of one under for 35 holes. "She saved everything."

Drained from a long college campaign and showing it with a T-38 at the U.S. Women's Open, Blumenherst conferred with her father, Dave, about the best way to prepare for her swansong in the Women's Amateur as well as avenge her loss to Maria José Uribe in 2007. The answer was to take July off from competition -- except for the family's annual "Blumie Open"--honing her game in practice while re-charging mentally.

"She wanted this one more than anything," said Dave Blumenherst. "For her to go away [from the amateur game] and be runner-up two years in a row, that would have been hard."

"Last year was really tough, not winning, and having to deal with it all year, getting reminded of it," Amanda said. "And so I feel this kind of erases that, and now when people talk to me about the U.S. Am, instead of 'My condolences,' it will be 'Congratulations, you played great.' So I'm just thrilled."

What's scary is to think how this might impact Blumenherst's confidence entering her final year of college. In 32 career starts she hasn't once finished outside the top 10. Can she get even better?

No need to get the philosophy class involved on this one. Blumenherst is looking forward to answering this question all by herself.