By Michael Boslet
The sunshine that seared Kansas Aug. 4 wasn’t as hot as the putting of Meredith Duncan and Nicole Perrot in the 101st U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
As the temperature climbed to 104 degrees during the finals, Duncan, 21, and Perrot, 17, burned the 6,224-yard Flint Hills National Golf Club for 10 birdies each in 37 holes of match play. At the first extra hole, Duncan holed a 2-foot birdie to claim her third prestigious title of the summer. As the Women’s Amateur champion, Duncan gets a free pass into the U.S. Women’s Open next year in – where else – Kansas, at Prairie Dunes.
In finishing second, Perrot, of Santiago, Chile, will be remembered for her grit and aggressive play, fighting back from 5 down to square the match on the 34th hole. She then used her flat stick to force Duncan to match putts on the last two holes of regulation.
Duncan always had an answer.
“When I walked on the 35th tee, I thought to myself that there’s no way on God’s green earth that I am losing this match today,” said the LSU senior who moved to No. 1 in the Golfweek/Titleist Women’s Amateur Rankings. “The way I look at it, nobody is going to stop me. I am not going to let anybody stop me.”
Perrot, who plans to play professionally when she turns 18 in December, also will be remembered for her summer. In a three-week span, she was second at the Junior World Championship in San Diego, won the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in Mission Hills, Kan., and, after a day of rest, began her march to the final at the Women’s Amateur.
But Duncan denied the spirited Perrot a chance to become the only player to win the Girls’ Junior and the Women’s Amateur in the same year. In doing so, Duncan made her summer one of historic significance. In June, she successfully defended the Women’s Western Amateur in a playoff, won the Women’s North and South Amateur, and a month afterward went shot for shot with Perrot.
Kansan Judy Bell, a former president of the U.S. Golf Association who has either played in or seen every Women’s Amateur since 1957, tried to put into context what she had witnessed. When she couldn’t find another apple to compare it with, she went to oranges and brought up the 1996 U.S. Amateur final between Tiger Woods and Steve Scott. After some thought, she confessed that even Woods’ 38th-hole victory was not equal to the drama that Duncan and Perrot had provided.
“It’s the best match I’ve ever seen – men or women,” she concluded.
Duncan and Perrot advanced through two rounds of stroke play – Duncan shooting 70-73-143 to tie with Celeste Troche as co-medalist – and five rounds of match play in five days of heat advisory weather to get to the final. Perrot dispensed another teen, 16-year-old South Korean Joo-Mi Kim, 3 and 2, in one semifinal, with Duncan beating Emily Bastel, a Michigan State senior, 3 and 1.
Duncan’s summer of success came at a difficult time. Her grandfather, Oree Marsalis, died in February at age 88. A golf coach in their hometown of Shreveport, La., “Gubba” was Duncan’s instructor, mentor, friend and tea party guest since she was a youngster.
“I see him everywhere,” Duncan said. “I know he is watching me and that . . . puts me at ease.”
In the championship’s morning round, Duncan marched over the Tom Fazio-designed course in 6-under-par 65. She hit 13-of-13 fairways and all but two greens in regulation in going 4 up on Perrot.
After falling 5 down on the second 18, Perrot turned up the heat on the 21st hole. From 7 feet, she nailed a birdie putt to cut Duncan’s lead to 4. Then, two holes later, Perrot birdied from 15 feet, inspiring her small entourage of Chileans to cheer vamos! – “Let’s go!”
Duncan, didn’t wither, and sank a downhill 7-footer to halve the hole.
And so it went again on the 25th hole, with Perrot chipping in from above the hole only to watch Duncan slam home a putt from 18 feet. The momentum seemed to be shifting, though, as Perrot and her band of followers, including her nervous brother, Raul, 27, let their colors fly. The Perrot delegation bought matching Ralph Lauren Polo shirts adorned with stripes the colors of Chile’s flag: red, blue and white. A late arriver from Santiago, Mariana Gildemaister, came in time for the second half, carrying a real flag in her backpack. It never came out.
The birdie-for-birdie exchange didn’t fluster Perrot. “I don’t think that it is disappointing. I think it is great,” she said. “It’s great to play with great players that make you make a birdie and she makes another one. That’s the idea.”
On the back nine, Duncan’s steadiness slipped while Perrot took three of the first four holes. A bogey on the 402-yard 16th, where Duncan incurred her only three-putt of the day, squared the match and energized Perrot and her cheering section, which by now was loudly exhorting “Nene,” as she’s affectionately called.
Perrot couldn’t seize the lead, however, in spite of do-or-die putting from 8 and 20 feet that unleashed fist-pumping gestures that seemed to issue a challenge to her all-American opponent.
Duncan accepted. And with “Gubba” watching, her father, Dave, on her bag and mother, Debbie, in the gallery, Duncan showed that she is a scrapper, too.
After the 36th was halved, spectators and the players began to head to the first tee, which is where playoffs began all week. But because No. 1 wasn’t wired for television, the match was sent to No. 10, a 143-yard piece of waterfront real estate that Duncan had birdied three out of her last four trips.
Perrot hit first at the 10th, knocking her shot over the flagstick to about 18 feet. Duncan then answered, nearly holing a choke-down 7-iron. It was the shot of the tournament.
“I knew I had it in me,” said Duncan, holding the Robert Cox Trophy after becoming the first medalist to capture the Women’s Amateur since Amy Fruhwirth in 1991. “I feel like I’m very tough.”
She is. Earlier in the week as Duncan talked about her grandfather’s death, she was asked who helped her with her game now.
“Me, myself and I,” she shot back.