Erica Shepherd offers profile in poise winning 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior

Erica Shepherd holds the trophy after winning during the final round of match play at the 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo. on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons) Getty Images

Erica Shepherd offers profile in poise winning 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior

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Erica Shepherd offers profile in poise winning 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior

Erica Shepherd can’t remember the details.

Usually a lock to recall her competitive rounds, Shepherd has little memory of her championship match at the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior. She does remember putting on the 16th green at Boone Valley Golf Club to close out her 3-and-2 win over Jennifer Chang for the title. But no shots before that … on a day she long dreamed of. And it’s exactly what she wanted.

“I would pray that God would take that day, take my mind, and I think that’s what happened,” Shepherd said. “He just totally took control (for me) that day.”

That request came because of the previous day’s events, which forever are seared into her memory. Shepherd, 16, defeated Elizabeth Moon in 19 holes on July 28 in Augusta, Mo., in the semifinals. Moon missed a 4-footer to win the match, then quickly raked back the ball. Brent Nicoson – Shepherd’s longtime coach, her caddie that week and the coach at the University of Indianapolis – asked Shepherd if she’d given the putt. In front of a national TV audience, Shepherd then uttered aloud, “I didn’t say that was good.”

Moon had breached Rule 18-2, and after her one-shot penalty, Shepherd captured the hole and the match.

Social media storm explodes

A social media storm exploded, with some onlookers spreading messages of vitriol toward a teenage girl they perceived to be intentionally using a trick to steal a win. They questioned Shepherd’s character and her upbringing, telling her this would haunt her career. Some even predicted Duke, where Shepherd is committed for 2019, would pull her scholarship.

“No kids deserve to hear what she heard and what she was called,” Nicoson said.

The criticism shook Shepherd. Neither she nor Nicoson had any intentions of winning that way, and she wanted the match to continue. As harsh words were heaped on, Shepherd broke down that night.

Now, with months for Shepherd and her family – brother Ethan and parents Matt and Jerlyn – to process that firestorm, what was learned? Their takeaway: What an incredible learning experience.

Elizabeth Moon and Erica Shepherd share a hug after Shepherd won the match on the first playoff hole during the semifinal round of match play at the 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Mo. on Friday, July 28, 2017. (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Elizabeth Moon and Erica Shepherd hug after Shepherd won their semifinal in the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

“To be called everything in the book and be able to come out on the other side?” Matt Shepherd said. “What a blessing for her to be able to go through something like that at such a young age.”

Erica Shepherd never has been one to give in to fear. Along with golf, she grew up playing basketball and soccer. Her father would cringe as she went all out and implored her to go 80 percent.

“That’s not possible for me, Dad,” she said.

Erica suffered three concussions, two wrist fractures and a buckle fracture in her arm. Eventually she focused on golf, but problems continued. Overworking led to injuries, including a painful rib issue that nearly prevented her from playing the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open.

With family, friends and coaches asking her to slow down, Erica listened. She cut down on her practice and paid heed when her body told her it had enough.

She also opened up more this year. She was often a quiet presence, a girl with piercing blue eyes who could (unintentionally) intimidate opponents.

“My first impression of her was, ‘This girl looks really mean,’ ” Chang said with a laugh.

But Erica showed her true colors earlier in July at the AJGA’s Wyndham Cup, making friends with a fun personality. As Chang described her, Erica “talks a lot, laughs a lot and cries a lot.

‘Humble and really kind’

“She’s deep down such a humble and really kind girl.”

Chang comforted her friend before their championship tilt at Boone Valley. It would be one of several messages of support Erica received from her growing number of junior golfer friends (and from those back home), an avalanche of well wishes that helped her move on.

Deep down, this always will be part of her.

The Girls’ Junior trophy sits on a kitchen table in Erica’s Greenwood, Ind., home. On a recent trip past the trophy, Erica was prompted to search her name on Twitter and read negative comments for an hour. She defended herself in her head as she pored through, but the harsh words bounced right off.

“I can take it now,” Erica said. “I’m not going to read those and start bawling my eyes out.”

5 Moments of Note in 2017

Ultimately, the U.S. Girls’ Junior winner is at peace. Erica says she wouldn’t take anything back from that day. After Moon had committed the infraction, someone was probably going to notice. By Erica taking the brunt, she unearthed a new level of mental toughness.

The USGA recently announced the Girls’ Junior winner gets a U.S. Women’s Open exemption, which means Erica has locked up a spot there for 2018. She’s also ranked No. 1 in Golfweek’s Class of 2019.

The July ordeal proved an important humbling experience amidst all that. Reading the nasty comments is now therapeutic.

“It’s just a good reminder,” said Erica, “of what I got through.”

(Note: This story is one in a series reviewing the year in golf. It appears in the November 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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