Before return to Augusta National, Rachel Kuehn reflects on growth of women’s golf


Programming Update: Due to expected inclement weather and earlier tee times, NBC Sports will present live coverage of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur final round tomorrow, April 1, beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Peacock, NBC Sports digital platforms and GOLF Channel and Peacock will present live coverage starting at 10 a.m. ET, and previously scheduled coverage will air from noon-3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock. 

Flashback to April 2, 2022.

It’s 8:20 AM in Augusta, Georgia. Rachel Kuehn stands on the first tee of Augusta National Golf Club. Her brown hair is tied back in a ponytail, adorned with a black and white bow, and she’s wearing a pink skirt that matches the azaleas lining the hills of Augusta National. It’s the final day of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and Kuehn is within striking distance of the lead.

A senior on the Wake Forest University women’s golf team, Kuehn has played golf since she was two. In a childhood filled with softball games, tennis matches and gymnastics meets, golf tournaments gradually gained her favor. Her fixation on golf was not unique: her mother, Brenda, had a legendary career at Wake Forest and in the amateur/professional ranks, and both of her brothers play or have played college golf.

Two years before that cool Augusta morning, Kuehn’s freshman debut at Wake Forest was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Tournaments were canceled, students were sent home and the world spun into a frenzy. Many of the ways that people socialized and exercised – bars, movie theaters, concert venues, gyms – were shut down indefinitely. However, many golf courses and driving ranges remained open as golf provided an outdoor, socially-distanced space for people to be active.

By reputation, golf is often considered a leisurely game reserved for retirees and vacation-goers. But for Kuehn and millions of others, golf is medicinal. At a time when the world felt so chaotic, playing a quick nine holes with a loved one went a long way.

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“During COVID, there wasn’t much to do except play golf,” Kuehn said. “I was incredibly lucky that my golf course stayed open throughout the pandemic, and my brother got the chance to come work from home. This meant that we got to spend more time together, specifically playing golf. We are all incredibly competitive. In my family, there is no such thing as just playing for fun. We are always playing for something. Looking back, as unfortunate as it was that the world pretty much shut down, it gave my family and a lot of other families a chance to slow down and spend time together.”

A Norwegian study conducted in 2015 found that this “green exercise” is an effective way to reduce stress. Golf involves (distanced) social interaction that has been proven to reduce anxiety and the effects of depression. In fact, a Swedish study in 2009 found that golfers have an increased life expectancy of “about five years.”

Golf gives Kuehn a chance to shut everything else off and clear her head. “When practicing or playing, I have the chance to be totally present in what I’m doing. The practice facility is my happy place, where I get the chance to do what I love.”

At last year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Kuehn went up against seventy-one of the best female amateur golfers in the world. After heroic birdies on her last two holes of the qualifier at Augusta National’s neighboring course, Champions Retreat, Kuehn finished just inside the top 30 and got the chance to play a third day and see 365 of the most spectacular acres of land in the U.S.

RELATED: The field and format for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur

To the outside world, ANGC is a place of mystery and allure. The exclusive club limits its membership to roughly three hundred people, with new members accepted only when an existing member passes away or gives up their membership. The few who are allowed to walk the grounds each year get the unique opportunity to look behind the veil.

Spectators wrapped around the first tee box and lined the fairway ahead of Kuehn. Of the forty thousand fans on the grounds, it felt like every set of eyes were focused on her. As she shakily put her tee in the ground, Kuehn went through her pre-shot routine, her eyes trained on her target off in the distance.

“I was so unbelievably nervous on the first tee,” Kuehn remembered. “The sense of history and tradition I could feel just looking around still gives me goosebumps.”

Amid the dense crowd forming behind her, two figures loomed in the front row. Annika Sorenstam is one of the greatest women’s golfers of all time, winning ninety international tournaments as a professional and earning $22 million before retiring from professional golf in 2008. Next to Sorenstam sat Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and one of the most influential women in American history. As those two figures looked on, Kuehn felt the enormity of the moment.

“If there was ever a time to hit the fairway, this is it,” Kuehn thought to herself.

She hit her drive, and thousands of heads turned as they followed her ball, soaring through the air. It landed in the rough and bounced several times before coming to a stop. Fairway missed.

Kuehn picked up her tee and paced forward. Her nerves faded away as she walked with her caddy by her side. She may have missed the fairway, but she was at peace with that. It was the perfect time to remind herself that golf is a game of imperfections; a game of managing your mistakes and approaching the next shot with a clean slate.

With a renewed focus, Kuehn scrambled and sunk a putt to save par on the first hole. After that, she found her groove.

Kuehn caught fire with birdies on the second, third and fourth holes. Walking up the fifth fairway, she saw a massive white scoreboard putting up a new name, letter by letter. K…U…E… she got goosebumps and looked away before they could finish. That scoreboard has displayed the names of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. And now hers.

RELATED: Davis returns to Augusta with new level of fame

“I’ve been lucky enough to go watch the Masters, and I have seen some of the most famous names in golf on those leaderboards,” Kuehn said. “To see my own last name put up made me feel like all the hours I’ve put in were worth it. It felt like the pinnacle of my golfing experience.”

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur is a monumental step in the right direction for the game of golf. While the exclusivity of Augusta National adds to the sense of mystery surrounding the course, it is also a reminder of inequality in the sport based on race, gender and economic opportunity.

Augusta only allowed male members for many years, which is consistent with the “old white man’s game” stereotype that golf has developed. The club finally invited its first female members in 2012, one of whom was Rice.

“This event has given worldwide coverage to the women’s amateur game,” Kuehn said. “The amount of people that have come to watch the event or followed at home on television has been remarkable. I have no doubt that many young girls have picked up the game as a result of the event. This is a testament to Augusta National’s commitment to continually growing the game.”

Kuehn capped off her flawless front nine with a birdie on seven and pars on eight and nine to shoot a 4-under 32.

When asked if her stellar front nine affected her mindset, she remarked, “I was just enjoying it…  it’s fun when you’re hitting golf shots in places that you’ve seen countless times on TV.”

By the end of the day, she carded a 3-under 69 – the second lowest round of the day. She finished just three strokes shy of first place in solo 7th. While her run at the title fell short, her face didn’t show it. The only emotion there was gratitude.

The growth in the women’s professional game coincides with a boom in women’s recreational participation. As mentioned in a study by the National Golf Foundation, since 2014, the number of female participants has grown by 43% – from 8 million to almost 11.5 million.

This increase in participation was most dramatic during the pandemic. Like every other group that was stuck in quarantine, women were looking to get outdoors, move their bodies and experience some social interaction again, and golf was the perfect solution. The increase in participation is evident when passing a driving range or walking through a golf course parking lot. Nowadays, it’s common to see women of all ages: women practicing their game, women trash talking their friends, women lacing up their shoes before a round.

Golf’s surge in popularity isn’t restricted to the golf course. In fact, a study from the National Golf Foundation shows that, of the population of golf participants in the U.S. in 2021, 33% are classified as “off course only.” For many people, golf is a trip to play mini golf, hit the driving range or go to Topgolf with friends. Gone are the days when the only way to be considered a golfer was to play at an exclusive course with expensive clubs.

These changes are even evident at Augusta National, Kuehn observed.

She walked off the 18th green last April into the hordes of spectators, many of whom were young girls. Kuehn smiled and waved as they congratulated her on a spectacular round of golf.

As Kuehn walked by, one little girl assured her:

“I don’t play yet, but I will soon.”

How to Watch the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Programming Update: Due to expected inclement weather and earlier tee times, NBC Sports will present live coverage of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur final round tomorrow, April 1, beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Peacock, NBC Sports digital platforms and GOLF Channel and Peacock will present live coverage starting at 10 a.m. ET, and previously scheduled coverage will air from noon-3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock. 

  • Wednesday, March 29th: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 1 (1:30pm ET on Golf Channel and Peacock)
  • Thursday, March 30th: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 2 (1:30pm ET on Golf Channel and Peacock)
  • Saturday, April 1st: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 3 (8am ET on Peacock and the NBC Sports App, 12pm ET on NBC)

Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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2023 Mizuho Americas Open: How to watch, who’s playing in inaugural LPGA event at Liberty National GC

Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Laureus award winner and three-time Olympic medalist Eileen Gu on Stanford, elevating women and changing the game