Riley Smyth wore a golf-themed face mask to her first-ever U.S. Women’s Amateur interview on Monday. The navy face covering, featuring a pattern of golf clubs and golf balls, was sewn by a family friend who plays golf with Smyth’s mom Gwen. It was the first face-covering she got, way back when the COVID quarantine began.
And on Monday, glimpsed through a computer screen from Rockville, Maryland, it was the first sign of how different things remain. The traffic is greatly reduced on site at Woodmont Country Club for this week’s championship. Monday marked the first USGA round to be played in 319 days, and Smyth spoke about an opening 4-under 68 by video conference.
Smyth checks in at No. 309 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Her heart sank early in the year when the USGA canceled local qualifying for this event. The Cary, North Carolina, native tried to play her win into the 2019 Women’s Amateur and missed it by one shot. The USGA said it would take the top 75 players in the WAGR automatically. Smyth filled out an application anyway.
“I didn’t think there was much of a chance but I was playing in the North & South so I knew that was also an opportunity,” Smyth said, referencing one of a handful of summer tournaments the USGA designated as qualifiers. “Unfortunately I didn’t play well, but I was able to get in off of ranking so it really just paid off. I was shocked when I got the email that I got in.”
Talk about making the most of an opportunity. Smyth, who has her dad Kevin caddying this week, had five birdies and a single bogey at Woodmont Country Club on her way to the 68 that left her tied atop the leaderboard with Rachel Kuehn, a Wake Forest sophomore who entered the Women’s Am off back-to-back victories at the North & South Women’s Amateur and Ladies National Golf Association Amateur in the past month.
“The putts just started falling for me,” Smyth said of her round, “and it felt like a really easy 68 out there today.”
Smyth hardly needs it to be easy. She had just come off her second hip surgery – she had a procedure done on each one – when Virginia head coach Ria Scott was recruiting her. She wasn’t even hitting full shots then and needed to take a golf cart out to play by the time she arrived on campus in the fall of 2018.
It was obvious Smyth was still recovering, and she intended to redshirt that first year – until she came back from winter break. Smyth became the story of qualifying when she beat all her teammates, even the ones with all-ACC honors.
“You’re not just contributing,” Scott told her freshman, “you could be a really big factor.”
Ultimately, Smyth decided to play.
“She ended up playing all of the spring for us,” Scott said. “I think it’s such a cool thing that a year after her second hip surgery, she’s playing in the national championship for UVA.”
As a sophomore, Smyth came back with the goal to lead the team in scoring. Virginia played six full-field events before the season was canceled, and Smyth was second on the team with a 73.5 scoring average.
“If anybody tells Riley she can’t do something, that’s when she really turns it on,” Scott said.
Like all college athletes, Smyth found herself with plenty of time on her hands from mid-March on. She started consuming all the self-improvement titles she could find – soliciting suggestions from Scott and assistant coach Marissa Dodd.
“They made me a list of about 10 or so and I just flew through those,” Smyth said. Sometimes she would even listen to them on the way to the golf course.
She thinks her favorite was Atomic Habits, a book about building good habits and doing the little things on a daily basis.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Virginia is a member, announced last week it would cancel the fall college golf season. Smyth reached back to what she learned from Atomic Habits and will be able to cope, just as she has with every sharp turn on this rollercoaster of a year.
“If you’re doing the little things every day, then you’re not worried about the big picture in front of you,” she said.
Smyth has never played the Women’s Amateur before this year, or made any USGA start. She was runner-up at last summer’s Carolinas Women’s Match Play and Carolinas Amateur, and finished third individually at this fall’s Windy City Collegiate.
“This is up there on my goal list just because obviously I hadn’t played an event before,” she said. “It really is the pinnacle of amateur golf.”
It just looks different this year. Everyone on site this week at Woodmont Country Club – including players, caddie and staff – went through two layers of COVID testing, one at home and one on site. Masks are required at all times except when eating, competing or on the practice facilities. Social distancing is highly encouraged and extra sanitizing stations have been positioned around the property, including at every tee box.
On a year when nothing else has gone according to plan, the USGA’s first round back was quickly derailed by weather. A storm cell popped into the area late afternoon, halting play from 4:27 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
What wasn’t at all surprising was Rachel Kuehn’s presence at the top of the leaderboard. The Wake Forest sophomore opened with a front-nine 32 on the way to a share of the lead.
“I feel in control over the golf ball,” she said. “It’s nice to kind of stand out there and have some sort of idea of where the ball is going. It’s just a confidence thing, and I’m putting pretty well right now.”
Defending champion Gabriela Ruffels returns after what was, in effect, a lost year as the Women’s Am winner. Some perks remain, particularly the exemption into a handful of women’s major championships, starting with this month’s AIG Women’s British Open (a start initially in limbo because of travel restrictions).
Ruffels skipped last month’s North & South Women’s Amateur, where she also had a title to defend, to limit travel but warmed up for this week by playing the Jacksonville Amateur, a men’s event.
She fired an even-par 72 on Monday at Woodmont to land in a tie for 21st.
“Of course, there was extra pressure, extra nerves, especially with the whole year that’s been going on,” Ruffels said. “It’s been kind of crazy. It’s been a long wait, too, to get here. But I’m happy with how I did today and how I handled those first-round nerves.”
120th U.S. Women’s Amateur
|Where||Woodmont Country Club, Rockville, Maryland|
|Format||Stroke play Monday and Tuesday, with the top 64 players advancing to match play Wednesday-Sunday|
|Defending champ||Gabriela Ruffels|
|How to watch||Golf Channel:
Wednesday-Thursday, 4-7 p.m. ET
Friday, 1-4 p.m. ET
Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET
Sunday, 1-4 p.m. ET