Jensen Castle didn’t even bring enough clothes for her trip to New York.
The soon-to-be junior for Kentucky Women’s Golf had no expectations of making it far enough at the 121st United States Women’s Amateur golf championship, which took place from August 2-8 at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, for the number of outfits to ever matter.
The 20-year-old Castle came into the tournament as the 63-seed, playing on a barely healed stress fracture in her ribs and dealing with the side effects of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine the day prior. She was weeks removed from so much as holding a golf club, she told the media on Wednesday, before taking the course on day one last Monday and shooting a below-average mark for herself with a 79.
“I had my rib injury and I hadn’t touched a club for two to three weeks before so I was like there is no way I’m going to make it into match play, just no way,” Castle told the media on Wednesday.
If there was any belief coming into the tournament that she could advance into the match play portion of the event, a 79 in the opening round took most of it away. But great golfers know how to quickly forget a poor round. Castle rallied on day two, shooting a 71 which put her in position to make the final 64. She made her way into the 12-for-2 playoff spot, where 12 golfers compete for the final two open spots.
Alongside fellow Kentucky Wildcat teammate Marisa Wenzler, the two of them staved off the 10 other competitors to steal the last two slots in order to advance to the next stage. Castle and Wenzler had done just enough to stay alive.
With outfit options already running low, Castle was matched up against No. 2 seed Kennedy Pedigo of SMU in the first round of match play. The native of West Columbia, SC, didn’t back down though, taking a 3&2 victory (three holes ahead with two holes left to play). Castle would move on to face two golfers the very next day, beating high schooler Sophie Linder and Georgia’s Jenny Bae as she made her way into the quarterfinals.
Suddenly, Castle was in a groove, but reality had yet to set in that she had a legitimate shot to win the entire tournament. Then she steamrolled Virginia Tech’s Emily Mahar to the tune of a 6&5 victory for arguably her most dominating performance of the week. Just like that, the 63-seed was in the semifinals despite still dealing with some nagging rib pain.
The most impressive round for Castle would come next: a late comeback against the No. 2 ranked player in the world and defending NCAA Champion Rachel Heck of Stanford. Trailing by two strokes with just three holes left, Castle stormed back to seal the win on the 19th hole.
“After that match, I was like alright, I’m here for it,” Castle said about her win over Heck. “I obviously just qualified for the final match and whatever happens happens tomorrow, but the golf I’m playing–Rachel Heck’s match and I, we were like six- or seven-under. We played some solid golf. So after that match, I was like alright greens and fairways, you’re playing solid golf and continue to focus on what you have all week and it could possibly work out.”
This set up a championship showdown against Arizona’s Vivian Hou, the reigning Women’s Golf Coaches Association Freshman of the Year, on Sunday. It was a 36-hole battle, with Hou taking an early advantage before Castle made a late rally to take the edge on hole 22. From there, Castle refused to cough up the lead, skating to the title and Kentucky’s first-ever U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Male or female, she is the first-ever 63-seed to win the Robert Cox Trophy and the third-ever 63-seed to win a title since seeding was introduced in the mid-1980s.
“It’s still not real to me. You can call me all these names and a champion and it’s just not real. It’s been a dream,” Castle added. “To make history as the first UK golfer, it’s awesome. I’m sure I’m not going to be the last, but just to represent Kentucky and be the second golfer out of South Carolina means a lot. South Carolina is home for me and just to make South Carolina proud–and Kentucky–it’s just a special feeling.”
With the win, Castle has qualified for the eight-woman 2021 USA Curtis Cup Team, which is scheduled to compete later this month in Wales. She is also immediately granted into the next 10 U.S. Women’s Amateur events and will receive invitations to other high-profile tournaments over the next couple of years. Her future is incredibly bright, but a break is much-needed.
“After as grueling of a tournament that Women’s Am was, 158 holes later, my rib hurts, I have such bad blisters,” Castle admitted on Wednesday.
Not only was she low on clothes by the end, but Castle also had to play the final five matches with the same golf ball, which featured a Kentucky logo. She even bounced from a hotel to eventually staying with a friend by the end of the tournament. Her consciousness came into the tournament with no expectations, but her game had other plans.