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Few events hold anticipation levels quite like golf’s coveted Major championships, and on an unimaginable journey to face off with the sport’s elite are Stirling University’s latest prospects.
From Kilmarnock to Carnoustie, and Sussex to St. Georges, Louise Duncan and Laird Shepherd have tasted success across the UK after rising through the ranks of amateur golf.
Now, after being crowned British Amateur champions, two of the game’s rising stars are set for a crack at Augusta National with Shepherd one of six amateurs at this year's Masters and Duncan featuring in the Augusta National Women's Amateur field.
Shepherd, who received invitations to compete at the 2021 Open at Royal St George's as well as this year’s Masters and US Open, still concedes his excitement about playing at one of the world’s most renowned courses.
“The Masters is just so special. It's an event that even for people that maybe aren't into golf a lot of them will follow," he said. "There is something mystical around Augusta and the Masters, and everything that goes on that week."
In last year’s all-England final at the picturesque Nairn Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands, the 24-year-old masterminded a remarkable comeback to earn his place at golf’s top table. And having struggled with injuries, the triumph came after a spell when he considered leaving the game.
“It felt like I hadn’t moved forward with my golf career in a good two and a half years which is quite hard to take when the thing you're most focused on isn’t going well, it becomes somewhat of your identity," Shepherd said. "Especially in that last year, I had thoughts of giving up, and what was I going to do if I couldn't play golf because physically, I just kept getting injured.”
Fellow Stirling golfer Louise Duncan has faced a similar journey until it came to her British Amateur win in 2021, as the Scot prevailed by a record-breaking margin of victory on the Kilmarnock Barassie Links.
After battling her own doubts, Duncan said: “Covid allowed me to put the clubs away for about 10 weeks and not worry about any upcoming tournaments. I had lost the exciting feeling of playing golf, it had become a chore towards the end of 2019. It gave me time to enjoy it and work on a few things at my own pace.”
In a time of reflection, the coronavirus pandemic ultimately provided the golfers with a mental break. Following the time off, Duncan was catapulted into the spotlight with a game that caught the world’s attention.
Their university coach Dean Robertson, a former European Tour winner, said: “I had a feeling that Louise had a big game, but she didn’t know quite how big a game she had.”
With invitations to golf’s showpiece events, last year’s AIG Women’s Open was up first and Duncan didn’t hesitate to mark her presence, leaving Carnoustie with a 10th place finish and some well-earned respect. Winning the Smyth Salver as the low amateur that week has unsurprisingly provided confidence ahead of an exciting year.
Duncan can look forward to an “unreal” experience in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur before she tests herself against the game’s elite in the US Women’s Open and Amundi Evian Championship, ahead of a return to Muirfield for the AIG Women’s Open in August.
To become ready for his crack at the upcoming Major championships, Shepherd has also picked up invaluable experience, on the DP World (formerly European) Tour and at the Open Championship. A far cry from the often-undesirable conditions university golfers face as part of their learning curve, the 149th Open Championship at Royal St. Georges provided one of golf’s truest tests and an unforgettable experience.
After gaining a spot in the star-studded field, Shepherd felt a sense of belonging as he went toe-to-toe with former Masters champion Danny Willett.
“I felt like I had just as much support out there as he did which was quite confusing, but it was just so much fun," he said. "To think that the guys who are the best in the world live like that every week is eye-opening, and I love that environment and having big crowds.”
Fearless in his approach, the university graduate “didn't feel out of place.” Shepherd said: “the perceived gap in skill is not as big as many people think it's going to be, I felt like I was supposed to be there and that probably helped me.”
With hopes of turning professional after June’s US Open, the Englishman is looking ahead to a potentially life-changing year.
“There is no way I could ever imagine the incredible journey these players have been on," Robertson said. "More than that it’s a dream come true and these opportunities are just incredible."
The amateurs have overcome all of the game’s barriers so far, but the reality is that hard work and determination have allowed dreams to be lived. As they arrive at golf’s most nostalgic course, the long journey from the Airthrey Estate to Augusta National will feel worthwhile, but it won’t take long to realise it’s the start of a new dawn for golf’s freshest stars.
John is a journalism student at University of Stirling with the aim of having a career in sports journalism after graduating. He has a passion for all sports, but especially golf and finds the most enjoyment watching links golf. His favourite golf course is Pebble Beach.
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