About a year ago, Erica Shepherd had an epiphany.
Warming up on the driving range before the U.S. Women’s Open in San Martin, California, she found herself dealing with so much back pain that she couldn’t swing a golf club.
It was at that point that Shepherd decided she had to scale her training back a bit. She still plays 36 holes nearly every day — but when compared with the full-day grinds she was putting herself through last summer, that’s light work.
“Physically, I don’t hurt as bad; I always have my problems, I guess,” she said. “But mentally, on the golf course, I would be out there for 13 hours, and that just wears you down.”
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The 16-year-old also is taking on fewer tournaments this year, focusing her energy on the bigger events — and with one exception, it’s been paying off.
She’s hoping to cap her summer with a flurry, playing in the U.S. Girls Junior next week followed by the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the Junior Solheim Cup next month.
The Center Grove junior is happy with the balance she’s been able to strike between remaining driven to win and enjoying the game.
“I think this year is the best I’ve ever done with that,” Shepherd said. “I’m still super competitive, but I take it out in different ways. I don’t get as mad on the golf course; I just use it to fire myself up.”
That has been evident of late. Shepherd took a disappointing performance at the U.S. Women’s Open qualifier on May 22 — she now says she put too much pressure on herself to qualify again after making it at age 15 — and used it as motivation ever since.
At the Thunder International Junior in Scottsdale, Arizona the following weekend, Shepherd tied for fifth with a 1-under-par score of 215. The Duke recruit followed that up with a second-place performance at the Rolex Girls Junior Championship in Asheville, North Carolina, where she wound up one shot back of the winner after firing a final-round 67.
“I was pretty mad I didn’t win,” Shepherd said of the Rolex. “But that was the first week that everything, my putting and everything, was together.”
It has largely stayed together since. On June 22, she shot a 68 to qualify for U.S. Girls Junior, which begins next Monday at Boone Valley Golf Club in Augusta, Missouri. The following week, she carded a 69 to qualify for U.S. Women’s Amateur, which takes place Aug. 7-13 at San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista, California.
Then, Shepherd began July by helping the East team win the Wyndham Cup at Mayacama Golf Club in Santa Rosa, California.
She’ll be part of another team event in mid-August — Shepherd was one of 10 players chosen to represent the United States at the Junior Solheim Cup in West Des Moines, Iowa, where the Americans will play three days of matches against a team of the best young players from Europe.
One of the only down sides to playing in so many prestigious tournaments is that Shepherd ends up missing out on some other moments at home. While she was playing the Rolex, for example, her older brother Ethan was capping his high school career by leading the Center Grove boys team to its first state title.
“I wish I could have seen him since it was his last state championship,” Erica said, “but I probably would have cried, so it’s good I wasn’t there.”
Shepherd will also miss most of the first three weeks of school next month due to her tournament schedule — which also prevents her from playing for the Trojans during the fall high school season — but that figures to lighten up by the end of August. She’ll play in just two events in September, the AJGA Girls Championship in Greenville, South Carolina and the USGA Women’s State Team tournament in New Mexico.
Once she plays her final tournament of the year in November, Shepherd will take about a month off from playing golf before she goes back to the grind again in 2018.
While she’s clearly in a better place these days, less worn down and more able to enjoy what she’s doing, Shepherd still isn’t likely to become too satisfied with her on-course results.
“I kind of expect myself to win everything,” she said, “so I’m never really happy with how I play.”
At least she seems to be happier with everything else.
Not exactly homework
Center Grove students go back to school Aug. 2, but Erica Shepherd will be spending the first portion of her junior year on the road. A glance at her upcoming golf schedule:
July 24 to 29;U.S. Girls Junior;Augusta, Mo.
Aug. 7 to 13;U.S. Women’s Amateur;Chula Vista, Calif.
Aug. 14 to 16;Junior Solheim Cup;West Des Moines, Iowa
Sept. 1 to 4;AJGA Girls Championship;Greenville, S.C.
Sept. 26 to 28;USGA State Team;Santa Fe, N.M.