Erica Shepherd overcomes concession controversy to win U.S. Girls' Junior

USGA/Steven Gibbons

Erica Shepherd overcomes concession controversy to win U.S. Girls' Junior

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Erica Shepherd overcomes concession controversy to win U.S. Girls' Junior

A new day and Erica Shepherd was a winner again. But this time there would be no debate about how she got it done.

Shepherd defeated Jennifer Chang, 3 and 2, in Saturday’s 36-hole final at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo., to capture the U.S. Girls’ Junior title.

This is a huge victory regardless, but how much greater it must seem after what Shepherd overcame.

The 16-year-old became embroiled in controversy Friday when she won her semifinal match in a playoff over Elizabeth Moon after a (not) conceded putt. The stunning finish in 19 holes proved to be a lightning-rod for debate (full details on the situation here) and led to significant backlash against Shepherd on social media.

The vitriol was so fierce, Shepherd was in tears and had trouble sleeping the night before the final.

But the fallout seemed to have little effect on her Saturday.

It helped that a couple of key voices chimed in. Leigh Anne Creavy, a family friend and the 1998 winner of the Girls’ Junior, spoke with Shepherd after the semifinal match.

As the teenager worried about outsiders’ perception following the controversial end against Moon, the veteran snapped her back to the moment at hand.

“She just told me she knew how I felt because she can kind of relate to me like caring too much about what other people think,” Shepherd said. “But she told me to just be Erica and to not let what other people were saying get in my head or try to distract me.”

Even Shepherd’s opponent got in on the process of easing the 16-year-old’s mind.

Shepherd and Chang, 17, are from far different regions – Shepherd hails from Greenwood, Ind., while Chang is of Cary, N.C. – but they are good friends.

As Shepherd practiced on the putting green Saturday morning prior to the start of the final, Chang gave her friend a hug and asked if she was OK.

Shepherd burst into tears.

“I kind of broke down and started crying,” Shepherd said, “then she gave me this whole speech about like how it went down and how there was nothing I could have done about it, and that just really boosted me back up and got myself to regroup.”

So much so that Shepherd somehow mustered the resolve to be in full command almost the whole way.

Shepherd won No. 2 for an early 1-up lead against Chang and would only trail a single hole in the entire match.

Shepherd took control for good after winning Nos. 13-15 to move 2 up. She’d lose 16 but rebound by winning Nos. 17 and 18 to post a 3-up lead after the morning round.

Shepherd moved 4 up after birdieing the 20th hole and raised the lead to that level again by winning the 24th hole after Chang took the 23rd. But Chang then won Nos. 25, 28 and 31 to cut the lead to one late in the match.

Then, the closer in Shepherd kicked in. She birdied the 32nd to move back 2 up and closed out with a 2-footer for par to win the 33rd and the match.

After she putted out for the title, Shepherd displayed just how much this all meant after a long two days.

However it got done, Shepherd is now a U.S. Girls’ Junior winner, and the first left-hander to capture this title.

This victory is not unexpected for those paying attention. Shepherd is a two-time AJGA champion as well as a two-time Rolex Junior All-American. The Duke commit is also the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2019.

Shepherd entered the week having finished no worse than T-5 in her last three AJGA starts. She made it to match play at the Girls’ Junior smoothly – T-28 at 5 over in stroke-play qualifying – and then went on her match-play run. Shepherd opened with victories of 4 and 3, 3 and 1, 2 and 1, and 3 and 1 before getting the biggest challenge of her week against Moon.

Shepherd was 2 down with four holes to play in regulation in that semifinal match but took the 15th and 17th to force a playoff. On that first extra hole, Moon had a 4-footer for birdie to win the match. It’s an opportunity she failed to capitalize on, leading to the aforementioned controversial conclusion.

A day later, though, and there was no playoff or concession controversy in sight for Shepherd against Chang (a USC commit and No. 4 in the Class of 2018).

And she made her family friend proud.

“I can remember when I was (younger) I had (Leigh Anne) as my background holding the Girls’ Junior trophy to try to motivate me to do that,” Shepherd said. “I’ve always told everyone when making my goals, this is the goal that I have to accomplish.”

She can now mark that off.

Concession controversy? Well, Shepherd is a USGA champion. No doubt about that.

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