The Masters' opening act: Three state players teeing it up at this week's Augusta Women's Amateur
Ashley Lau had plans this week to get her passport renewed.
"I guess that can wait," she said, with a laugh.
The story checks out. Instead, Lau, a senior golfer at Michigan who grew up in Malaysia and attended high school in Australia, will travel to Augusta, Georgia, where she will fulfill a lifelong dream — playing at least one round at Augusta National Golf Club.
Lau is one of three state golfers who will participate in the third Augusta National Women's Amateur, along with junior teammate Hailey Borja and Michigan State senior Valery Plata.
The tournament begins with two rounds at Champions Retreat Golf Club, on Wednesday and Thursday, with the top 30 in the 72-player field advancing to the final, set for Saturday at Augusta National, home of the Masters. Everyone will get to play at least one round at Augusta, regardless if they make the cut, in a Friday practice round.
"Oh, it's really exciting," said Plata, the 2020 Big Ten player of the year and a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, who's from from Floridablanca, Colombia. "It's something I've wanted to do for a while. … They sent me an invite the second week of January.
"It was pretty surreal just to open it and have my name on it."
Augusta National, which in the early 2000s was embroiled in controversy for its ban on women members, announced plans in 2018 for the inaugural women's amateur tournament, with the first event taking place in 2019. The tournament was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, before returning in 2021.
The field is the strongest and most exclusive in women's golf, and features mostly the top collegiate golfers in the country, with some high schoolers, too.
Lau, on the strength of two wins and a runner-up for Michigan this spring, is ranked 30th in the world in the amateur rankings, which earned her a late invitation last week. Plata, who finished 2021 with wins in the Women's Amateur Latin America, South America Women's Amateur Team Championship and the Patriot All-America Invitational after making the U.S. Women's Amateur semifinals in 2020, is ranked 43rd. Borja, the Lake Forest, California, native who has made match play in the last three U.S. Women's Amateur tournaments, is ranked 150th.
Michigan — with Lau and Borja, first- and second-team All-Big Ten, respectively, in 2021 — is one of 11 schools sending multiple representatives to Augusta.
"It means the world to me," said Lau, whose sister, Adeline, will caddie for her. "It hasn't really sunk in for me. I mean, I'll be playing at Augusta. I've watched the Masters since I was a little girl."
Lau said her goal is twofold — have fun and make the cut to the final round at Augusta.
Either way, she's looking forward to playing the Masters masterpiece. She's most eager to see the 16th hole, a short par 3, with water short left. There in 2005, Tiger Woods hit the shot Lau most remembers from the Masters — the epic chip from the back of the green, the ball hanging on the cup for a moment before falling.
Plata admits she doesn't watch much golf on television — except, she said, on the back nine on Sunday at the Masters, which, two months after the Super Bowl and a week after the Final Four, seems like the unofficial start of spring. She's most eager to see No. 12, a short par 3 over water.
Borja's favorite memory was Woods' comeback win in 2019 — "Such a special moment for him, but as well as just golf in general," she said — and she's most eager to play Amen Corner (Nos. 11-13). There's also something special about the par-4 18th finishing hole, where so many Masters have been won or lost.
The Augusta National Women's Amateur now serves as the opening act for Masters week, which is next week. At the Masters, Michigan State's James Piot will play as the defending U.S. Amateur champion.
"We've shared some opportunities together the last five months, playing different events," said Plata, whose caddie at Augusta will be Michigan State assistant coach Caroline Powers Ellis (husband Dan Ellis will caddie for Piot). "Its really cool for Michigan State."
This week also is really cool for women's golf, which has grown in popularity in recent years.
Shining a brighter spotlight on the game is significant — especially at historic Augusta, which didn't have a female member until 2012. Amazingly, in 2022, there still are a few clubs holding out on female membership.
That's what makes the Augusta Women's National Amateur so special for Borja, who has played in eight USGA tournaments, but counts this week as her biggest tournament yet.
"It's such an important and big step for women's golf," said Borja, whose caddie will be a family friend, Kristian Osuna. "Just to be able to compete at Augusta, I think it's such a big step. It's the biggest stage, at least for an amateur golfer.
"It also allows so many young girls, who probably watch the Masters with their families, to say, 'Oh, I want to play there some day.' It's a really big step.
"On sacred ground, where the best ever have competed."
Lau and Borja are the first Michigan players to compete in the Augusta National Women's Amateur, while Plata is the second player from Michigan State. Allyson Geer-Park played in 2019 and was invited in the 2020 tournament that was eventually canceled.
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