Tough finish for Jenny Bae, but a bright future awaits the Georgia Bulldog
Jenny Bae should be nothing but proud.
Proud of her persistence, of her resilience and of her character in the face of defeat, when one bad shot in a playoff against the world’s No. 1 amateur derailed what would have been an upset for the ages.
The Georgia fifth-year senior started her day six strokes back of Stanford sophomore Rose Zhang, who came into Saturday’s round at Augusta National with a five-shot lead over Andrea Lignell. Bae was third.
Bae was expected to contend – for second place. Meanwhile, Zhang had spent her Friday practice round at the famous course receiving premature congratulations after dominating the first two rounds at Champions Retreat.
Fast-forward eight hours, a weather delay and 18 holes later, and Bae was headed for a sudden-death playoff with a vulnerable Zhang, both 9 under overall. Bae had shot a 2-under 70 to stay in the mix while Zhang saw what was supposed to be a victory lap turn into a 4-over 76.
“I think today my round was great,” Bae said. “It was really smooth. I honestly didn’t feel like I really hit a bump. I would say that I was a little bit tense, a little bit nervous the first few holes, but I think that’s where my caddie played a big role in trying to keep me patient and keep it rolling.”
Bae elected to keep Georgia head coach Josh Brewer on the bag instead of using a veteran Augusta National caddie who knows the course like the back of their hand.
She’d played the course as a freshman with her team, but memories from a few practice rounds can be fleeting. Nonetheless, she chose familiarity over expertise; it was never a question that Brewer would be by her side in her second appearance at the young, but already prestigious, women’s amateur.
“I never planned, not once in my head thought I was going to change. Josh is a fantastic caddie and even better coach. I trust him with all my life,” she said.
“Just having him on my bag, I never felt so comfortable. I think that’s a key thing when playing such a big tournament.”
The decision translated to about as good of a scorecard as you could wish for in your first competitive start at Augusta National: four birdies to just one double bogey on No. 3. Her last birdie came on the par-4 17th, where she nailed her approach to a foot out and tapped in to close the gap with Zhang.
“I hit it, and next thing you know there’s just a bunch of roaring and saying, ‘Go Dawgs!’ I got up there and it was about a foot,” she said.
That momentum carried Bae the rest of the way, as the Georgia native was welcomed onto the 18th green to a loud round of applause and plenty more school chants. It was a far cry from the early exit she made from the tournament last year when she missed the cut.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier on a golf course that much in my life,” she said.
Bae’s day didn’t take a turn for the worse until the second playoff hole on No. 10.
She pulled her second shot just a bit, but that’s all it takes – there’s no margin for error against Zhang. The ball went left of the green and nestled in pine straw within some bushes. While she was able to position herself to where she could make an abbreviated swing, her next shot finished in a greenside bunker.
Bae took her bogey and bowed out, graceful in defeat.
“I mean, I tried, but Rose, she had a fantastic day,” Bae said. “Hats off to her.”
Zhang might have come out on top, but Bae had the performance of the day, alluding to a promising professional career after her final NCAA season concludes.
“It will definitely give me a lot of confidence, especially [when] I just shot 9 under in one of the most stressful and pressuring environments,” she said.
“I can just take so much from this. Once I start my Epson Tour career, I’ll be a lot more confident heading in.”
This win might not have been in the cards, but a bright future awaits Bae beyond her amateur career.
Years from now, when she looks back on this day, it could be remembered as a turning point that eventually propelled her to the LPGA Tour and major wins.
For now, hopefully she’s just enjoying finishing solo second at the most famous golf course in the world.