Erica Shepherd doesn’t usually need extra motivation to get out on the golf course and work on her game. But if she ever does need some, she can find it near the end of this year’s tournament schedule.
For all of the success she’s enjoyed playing in junior tournaments throughout North America, Shepherd has never had the opportunity to play overseas. So the Center Grove junior is understandably fired up about trying to earn a spot on the American team for the Junior Ryder Cup, which is being contested this year at Golf Disneyland in Paris.
The prospect of going to France isn’t going to drive her every move, but it’ll certainly be in the back of her mind.
“When I’m playing, I’m not going to be thinking about Paris,” Shepherd said. “I’ll be thinking about golf. But maybe if one day I don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock to go practice, I’ll think, ‘Well, I could be going to Paris if I get up.'”
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Being one of the six American girls to earn a spot on the Junior Ryder Cup team would mean that Shepherd either finished at the top of the point standings, won the U.S. Junior Amateur, repeated as U.S. Girls Junior champion or finished in the top two at the Junior PGA Championship.
Any of those would help qualify this summer as a good one, even by Shepherd’s own extremely high standards.
She’ll be forced to hit the ground running, having not played a tournament in six months, but Shepherd has tried to keep herself ready by practicing indoors for most of the winter.
“Just to have that big of a gap in between, there’s a lot of time to think about things, but there’s also a lot of time to make improvements,” Shepherd said. “There’s still a lot that I needed to improve upon this offseason, and I think I took advantage of that.”
Shepherd has spent the past few days in Arizona gearing up for the ANA Junior Inspiration, which starts Friday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. The invitation-only event features 48 of the world’s top junior girls and gives Shepherd an opportunity to earn an exemption for the first LPGA major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, on that same course the following week.
Whether she extends her stay in California by a week or not, Shepherd will be playing in at least one major this season. By virtue of her victory in last year’s U.S. Girls Junior tournament, she has a spot in this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, which takes place May 31 to June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama.
Shepherd qualified for the Open as a 15-year-old in 2016 but didn’t make the cut. She’s eager to erase that performance this year and become a contender at the event, both this year and beyond.
“After my first year playing, when I didn’t play good, I think that really motivated me to get back every year, just because I knew that if I was playing my best that I’d be right up in there,” Shepherd said. “I’m kind of used to playing my best on bigger stages, but that time I didn’t, so it was kind of a letdown.
“But I think from here on out, (making it there) should be an every-year thing for me.”
After the Open, Shepherd still has plenty of lofty goals left to achieve. She’ll again tee it up at the U.S. Girls Junior in July — this time at Pebble Beach — with a chance to become just the second repeat champion in the last 44 years and the fifth two-time winner in the event’s history.
The trophy from her 2017 win — the biggest victory of her career to date — currently serves as a table centerpiece just off the kitchen at the Shepherds’ home in Greenwood, and Erica is hoping to hold onto it for another year or two before having to give it back.
Shepherd briefly took it off of the table to bring it to Center Grove, where she was honored last month at halftime of a boys basketball game. Being able to share that moment with her friends and the rest of the community meant a great deal to her.
“That was really cool for them to do that, especially when I’m not able to play high school golf,” she said. “So for Center Grove to still show their support for me in that big of a way, to have me recognized at a high school basketball game … I know people are supportive, and they know what I do, but just to see and hear their support right there in front of me, that was kind of overwhelming.”
Having those moments locally mean even more considering how little time Shepherd actually spends in the area while her classmates are on vacation. She’s already slated to play in tournaments nearly every week this summer, starting with the U.S. Women’s Open and continuing through the U.S. Women’s Amateur in August.
“Basically I don’t even live here,” Shepherd said. “That’s probably the hardest part about summer. Everyone thinks that it’ll just be relaxing time, but for me that’s the time to hammer down.”
So while most of her friends are enjoying their time off from school, Shepherd will be spending hers putting an immense amount of pressure on herself to succeed.
When she’s in the moment on the golf course, everything is life or death.
“That’s kind of my mentality going into every tournament; I always think that if I don’t win, my summer will be ruined,” Shepherd said. “So I think the stress is at a max every time I tee it up. I don’t really think that ever wavers.”
Not everyone responds to pressure in the same way, though — and what might break most young women her age only seems to make Shepherd stronger. She said that applying the pressure of high expectations has served her well in the classroom and on the course, and there’s no sense in questioning her routine now. It served her well in 2017, and chances are that it will again this year.
If she’s spending the second half of September on the other side of the Atlantic, we’ll know that it did.
Erica Shepherd’s 2018 golf schedule is quickly loading up with big events. A look at the tournaments she’s planning to play so far this season:
March 23 to 25;ANA Junior Inspiration;Rancho Mirage, Calif.
April 11;US Women’s Amateur Four-Ball qualifier;Dickson, Tenn.
April 28 to May 2;U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball;Tarzana, Calif.
May 31 to June 3;U.S. Women’s Open;Shoal Creek, Ala.
June 12 to 15;AJGA Rolex Girls Junior;Park City, Utah
June 26 to 29;AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic;Westfield, N.J.
July 9 to 12;Girls Junior PGA Championship;Lexington, Ky.
July 16 to 21;U.S. Girls Junior Championship;Pebble Beach, Calif.
July 23 to 26;AJGA Wyndham Cup;Plymouth, Mass.
Aug. 6 to 12;U.S. Women’s Amateur;Kingston Springs, Tenn.
Not to be outdone by his younger sister, Center Grove grad Ethan Shepherd has been enjoying a solid freshman season for the men’s golf team at Indiana University.
Shepherd had a stroke average of 75.67 in 12 rounds during the fall season, and he’s picked his game up a notch so far this spring. He won all four of his matches during the Big Ten Match Play Championship last month in Florida, the lone Hoosier to post a perfect record at the event.
Indiana played in the Mission Inn Spring Spectacular in Florida this past weekend and returns to action in Palm Desert, California, this weekend at the Bighorn Collegiate.