Wake Forest golfers turn Augusta National Women’s Amateur into legacy experience

Rachel Kuehn of The United States plays her second shot on the par 4, 12th hole during the first round of the 2022 Augusta National Women's Amateur
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When the top 30 golfers at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur head to the home of the Masters on Saturday for the final round of the prestigious amateur event, expect all eyes will be on Stanford’s top-ranked stars Rose Zhang and Rachel Heck.

Ranked Nos. 1 and 3 respectively in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), and having each notched a T-3 finish last year at Augusta National, the Cardinal duo are poised to make noise again in Saturday’s final round. But if history is any indicator, don’t count out Wake Forest junior Rachel Kuehn.

The first two editions of the ANWA, which was paused in 2020 due to the pandemic, have featured a Demon Deacon in contention right to the finish. In 2019, Wake’s Jennifer Kupcho outdueled Arkansas’ Maria Fassi by four strokes to win the inaugural event. Two years later, Wake senior Emilia Migliaccio carded five birdies in her final-round 70 to force a playoff with Japanese teenager Tsubasa Kajitani, losing on the first hole of sudden death.

“It’s such an honor to be able to make the cut,” said Kuehn, a 20-year-old junior ranked No. 10 on the WAGR who finished with back-to-back birdies to make the 36-hole cut. “It’s always incredible to get to play against some of the best players in the world. Being able to finish with two birdies gives me a little momentum going into tomorrow, but I just feel honored, humbled, and excited to be playing on Saturday.”

A four-time winner at Wake Forest, Kuehn’s resume includes stroke-play medalist honors at last year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 2020 North & South Women’s Amateur title. As a member of Team USA at the 2021 Curtis Cup, Kuehn scored the clinching point in the U.S. victory. Her prowess on the golf course was literally instilled in Kuehn before she was born: Kuehn’s mother, Brenda Corrie Kuehn, was an All-American at Wake from 1984-86, and was eight months pregnant with Rachel when she played in the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles (N.C.). Brenda, who felt a contraction while hitting her tee shot on the 11th hole during the opening round, missed the cut but eight days later delivered her daughter.

Kuehn recorded 1-over 73 in her second round and enters Saturday at 5-over through 36 holes, five shots behind leaders Beatrice Wallin of Florida State and Latanna Stone of LSU.

Play started Wednesday at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., with 71 players representing 35 colleges. Stanford led the way with five current players (Heck, Aline Krauter, Caroline Sturdza, Angelina Ye and Zhang) and one future commitment (Megha Ganne), followed by the Wake Forest foursome of Kuehn, grad student Migliaccio, freshman Carolina Lopez-Chacarra and junior Lauren Walsh. What’s more, two more Deacs were at the ANWA as caddies, as fifth-year senior Virunpat Olankitkunchai carried the bag for Lopez-Chacarra and associate head coach Ryan Potter is looping for Kuehn.

But it was still a Wake Forest-family affair when it came to the caddies for Migliaccio and Walsh, too: Migliaccio had her mother, Ulrika (Johansson) Migliaccio – who played at Arizona with World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam – on the bag, while Walsh had the same caddie that worked with Kupcho during her ANWA win thanks to an introduction from the 2019 champ.

“They are all very competitive and want Wake Forest – as a team – to do well, and that’s very exciting,” Wake Forest head coach Kim Lewellen told On Her Turf. “What this team does is they really take pride in their school and want to bring championships to their school, and I think that’s what sets them sets them apart.”

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“Whoever comes on top, comes on top, but we want to play each other at our best games,” added Migliaccio, who missed the cut but will turn her efforts to covering the tournament for Golf Channel. “That’s why (Wake Forest is) excelling as a team right now, because they have such a great mindset and have incredible energy together.”

While only the top 30 players advance to the final round, all 71 have the opportunity to play a practice round Friday at Augusta National. For Kuehn, playing Augusta with her teammates is the ultimate cherry on top of an already memorable week.

“My team has become my best friends,” Kuehn recently told ESPN. “We make each other better players and better people. We are always pushing each other and holding each other accountable. To get to experience Augusta together is an incredible opportunity, and it’s really what we’ve been working towards.”

Although she missed the cut for the second time in three starts, Migliaccio recognized the honor of representing the Demon Deacons the moment she received her 2022 invitation.

“Not only am I representing all the young girls and women who hope to be here one day, but I’m also representing Wake Forest University, a school that has treated me so well over my undergraduate and graduate years,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

Lewellen said that “team-first” mentality allows her players to also embrace their vast international differences. Current player hometowns range from nearby Ashville, N.C., to Texas and New Jersey, and as far as England, Switzerland and Thailand.

“As a team, they do really well embracing each other’s differences and learning from them instead of seeing them as different – ‘different’ meaning something unflattering, you know?” said Lewellen, who was an All-American in her own right as a college golfer at the University of North Carolina. She spent 11 years coaching at Virginia before taking over as the Demon Deacons coach in 2018.

“They really look at each other and learn from each other’s differences. I always say it’s like a ‘Friends’ episode – you’ve got so many different personalities, but they’re all really close. And I think that’s what makes them so special.”

Making the whole week special, of course, is the tournament’s backdrop of venerable Augusta National, which immediately elevated this three-year-old amateur championship to “major” status upon its inception.

“This event is just it’s the right step for all of women’s golf and women’s sports,” said Lewellen, who said she’s seen a significant bump in attendance at Wake Forest golf camps and influx of recruiting letters. “I just think the sport is growing and that’s wonderful to see and I think it has a lot to do with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the LPGA and the TV (exposure) and everything these organizations are doing for women players, so I think we’re on a great path.”

Watch final-round coverage of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur this Saturday, April 2, noon-3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

The NBC Sports’ golf research team contributed to this report.