LPGA cut latest milestone for Center Grove junior

Erica Shepherd has had plenty of big moments during the 2017 golf season, and her latest outing was among the most memorable.

The Center Grove junior, who made national headlines in late July by becoming the first left-handed player to win the U.S. Girls Junior title, made the cut in an LPGA Tour event for the first time over the weekend, reaching the final round of the Indy Women in Tech Championship at Brickyard Crossing.

Despite finishing 77th after a disappointing third-round 83, Shepherd was pleased with the overall experience.

“The most special thing to me was playing in Indiana,” she said, “because I haven’t done that recently at all, and just all the support that my friends and family, to see them out there was great.”

This marked Shepherd’s first appearance in a professional tour event since she qualified for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 15.

Shepherd qualified for a spot in the Indy tournament on Labor Day and started off the event in fine fashion, shooting a 71 on Thursday and 68 on Friday to make the cut in a tie for 30th place. At 5 under par, she was ahead of such established stars as Paula Creamer, Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel.

But Saturday’s final round didn’t go quite so well. Shepherd triple-bogeyed the fifth hole and had double bogeys on the seventh, eighth and 16th.

She said that it had been about three years since the last time she’d had that type of round.

“I basically hit it into every single hazard that there was,” Shepherd said. “So it was just mentally one of those days where you feel like you’re out of control.

“I wasn’t hitting bad; my swing wasn’t messed up or anything. It was all mental.”

The 16-year-old did close on a high note by chipping in for birdie on the 18th.

“I didn’t even really care at that point,” she said. “It was just a good way to finish, I guess.”

The rough final round aside, Shepherd has had quite a summer. In July, she became the first left-handed player to win the U.S. Girls Junior Championship, and she followed by helping the United States team to victory in the Junior Solheim Cup.

Later this month, she will travel to Canada as part of the three-player American team for the World Junior Girls Championship. From there, she’ll head to Stillwater, Oklahoma for the AJGA Ping Invitational in October, then finish her season in late November at the Rolex Tournament of Champions in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Once those events are over, Shepherd plans to take about a month off from golf before beginning her preparations for 2018 — but she’s clearly building toward a potential future on the LPGA Tour, and getting a taste of that life this past weekend only made that goal feel more realistic.

“It was cool at the practice round seeing how good of friends the players are and getting to talk to them, and asking them how they like it and what their life is really like,” Shepherd explained. “It made my realize that that would obviously be the best job in the world for me. Like, that’s not even a job.

“I think it kind of hit me after Friday, when I was top 30, actually competing with them — it just kind of shocked me that I was literally competing with the best pros in the world. So that kind of hit me and made me think that I’ll actually be doing that in like six years or whatever.”

For now, though, Shepherd is still a high school student, and missing last Thursday and Friday unexpectedly meant playing catch-up this week.

“I really wasn’t expecting to miss this week, because I didn’t really think I had that good a chance to qualify,” Shepherd said. “They only took two, and they were all pros.

“This week kind of hit me hard, missing school, but Center Grove, they really couldn’t be any better, just helping me and not giving me a hard time about it.”

By the numbers

At 16, Erica Shepherd has already played in two professional tour events, including a major championship. A look at how she’s fared playing with the pros while still in high school:

2016 U.S. Open;82-75—157 (missed cut)

2017 Indy Women in Tech Championship;71-68-83—222 (77th/144)

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.