Before return to Augusta National, Rachel Kuehn reflects on growth of women’s golf

Programming Update: Due to expected inclement weather and earlier tee times, NBC Sports will present live coverage of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur final round tomorrow, April 1, beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Peacock, NBC Sports digital platforms and GOLF Channel and Peacock will present live coverage starting at 10 a.m. ET, and previously scheduled coverage will air from noon-3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

Flashback to April 2, 2022.

It’s 8:20 AM in Augusta, Georgia. Rachel Kuehn stands on the first tee of Augusta National Golf Club. Her brown hair is tied back in a ponytail, adorned with a black and white bow, and she’s wearing a pink skirt that matches the azaleas lining the hills of Augusta National. It’s the final day of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and Kuehn is within striking distance of the lead.

A senior on the Wake Forest University women’s golf team, Kuehn has played golf since she was two. In a childhood filled with softball games, tennis matches and gymnastics meets, golf tournaments gradually gained her favor. Her fixation on golf was not unique: her mother, Brenda, had a legendary career at Wake Forest and in the amateur/professional ranks, and both of her brothers play or have played college golf.

Two years before that cool Augusta morning, Kuehn’s freshman debut at Wake Forest was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Tournaments were canceled, students were sent home and the world spun into a frenzy. Many of the ways that people socialized and exercised – bars, movie theaters, concert venues, gyms – were shut down indefinitely. However, many golf courses and driving ranges remained open as golf provided an outdoor, socially-distanced space for people to be active.

By reputation, golf is often considered a leisurely game reserved for retirees and vacation-goers. But for Kuehn and millions of others, golf is medicinal. At a time when the world felt so chaotic, playing a quick nine holes with a loved one went a long way.

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“During COVID, there wasn’t much to do except play golf,” Kuehn said. “I was incredibly lucky that my golf course stayed open throughout the pandemic, and my brother got the chance to come work from home. This meant that we got to spend more time together, specifically playing golf. We are all incredibly competitive. In my family, there is no such thing as just playing for fun. We are always playing for something. Looking back, as unfortunate as it was that the world pretty much shut down, it gave my family and a lot of other families a chance to slow down and spend time together.”

A Norwegian study conducted in 2015 found that this “green exercise” is an effective way to reduce stress. Golf involves (distanced) social interaction that has been proven to reduce anxiety and the effects of depression. In fact, a Swedish study in 2009 found that golfers have an increased life expectancy of “about five years.”

Golf gives Kuehn a chance to shut everything else off and clear her head. “When practicing or playing, I have the chance to be totally present in what I’m doing. The practice facility is my happy place, where I get the chance to do what I love.”

At last year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Kuehn went up against seventy-one of the best female amateur golfers in the world. After heroic birdies on her last two holes of the qualifier at Augusta National’s neighboring course, Champions Retreat, Kuehn finished just inside the top 30 and got the chance to play a third day and see 365 of the most spectacular acres of land in the U.S.

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To the outside world, ANGC is a place of mystery and allure. The exclusive club limits its membership to roughly three hundred people, with new members accepted only when an existing member passes away or gives up their membership. The few who are allowed to walk the grounds each year get the unique opportunity to look behind the veil.

Spectators wrapped around the first tee box and lined the fairway ahead of Kuehn. Of the forty thousand fans on the grounds, it felt like every set of eyes were focused on her. As she shakily put her tee in the ground, Kuehn went through her pre-shot routine, her eyes trained on her target off in the distance.

“I was so unbelievably nervous on the first tee,” Kuehn remembered. “The sense of history and tradition I could feel just looking around still gives me goosebumps.”

Amid the dense crowd forming behind her, two figures loomed in the front row. Annika Sorenstam is one of the greatest women’s golfers of all time, winning ninety international tournaments as a professional and earning $22 million before retiring from professional golf in 2008. Next to Sorenstam sat Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and one of the most influential women in American history. As those two figures looked on, Kuehn felt the enormity of the moment.

“If there was ever a time to hit the fairway, this is it,” Kuehn thought to herself.

She hit her drive, and thousands of heads turned as they followed her ball, soaring through the air. It landed in the rough and bounced several times before coming to a stop. Fairway missed.

Kuehn picked up her tee and paced forward. Her nerves faded away as she walked with her caddy by her side. She may have missed the fairway, but she was at peace with that. It was the perfect time to remind herself that golf is a game of imperfections; a game of managing your mistakes and approaching the next shot with a clean slate.

With a renewed focus, Kuehn scrambled and sunk a putt to save par on the first hole. After that, she found her groove.

Kuehn caught fire with birdies on the second, third and fourth holes. Walking up the fifth fairway, she saw a massive white scoreboard putting up a new name, letter by letter. K…U…E… she got goosebumps and looked away before they could finish. That scoreboard has displayed the names of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. And now hers.

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“I’ve been lucky enough to go watch the Masters, and I have seen some of the most famous names in golf on those leaderboards,” Kuehn said. “To see my own last name put up made me feel like all the hours I’ve put in were worth it. It felt like the pinnacle of my golfing experience.”

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur is a monumental step in the right direction for the game of golf. While the exclusivity of Augusta National adds to the sense of mystery surrounding the course, it is also a reminder of inequality in the sport based on race, gender and economic opportunity.

Augusta only allowed male members for many years, which is consistent with the “old white man’s game” stereotype that golf has developed. The club finally invited its first female members in 2012, one of whom was Rice.

“This event has given worldwide coverage to the women’s amateur game,” Kuehn said. “The amount of people that have come to watch the event or followed at home on television has been remarkable. I have no doubt that many young girls have picked up the game as a result of the event. This is a testament to Augusta National’s commitment to continually growing the game.”

Kuehn capped off her flawless front nine with a birdie on seven and pars on eight and nine to shoot a 4-under 32.

When asked if her stellar front nine affected her mindset, she remarked, “I was just enjoying it… it’s fun when you’re hitting golf shots in places that you’ve seen countless times on TV.”

By the end of the day, she carded a 3-under 69 – the second lowest round of the day. She finished just three strokes shy of first place in solo 7th. While her run at the title fell short, her face didn’t show it. The only emotion there was gratitude.

The growth in the women’s professional game coincides with a boom in women’s recreational participation. As mentioned in a study by the National Golf Foundation, since 2014, the number of female participants has grown by 43% – from 8 million to almost 11.5 million.

This increase in participation was most dramatic during the pandemic. Like every other group that was stuck in quarantine, women were looking to get outdoors, move their bodies and experience some social interaction again, and golf was the perfect solution. The increase in participation is evident when passing a driving range or walking through a golf course parking lot. Nowadays, it’s common to see women of all ages: women practicing their game, women trash talking their friends, women lacing up their shoes before a round.

Golf’s surge in popularity isn’t restricted to the golf course. In fact, a study from the National Golf Foundation shows that, of the population of golf participants in the U.S. in 2021, 33% are classified as “off course only.” For many people, golf is a trip to play mini golf, hit the driving range or go to Topgolf with friends. Gone are the days when the only way to be considered a golfer was to play at an exclusive course with expensive clubs.

These changes are even evident at Augusta National, Kuehn observed.

She walked off the 18th green last April into the hordes of spectators, many of whom were young girls. Kuehn smiled and waved as they congratulated her on a spectacular round of golf.

As Kuehn walked by, one little girl assured her:

“I don’t play yet, but I will soon.”

How to Watch the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Programming Update: Due to expected inclement weather and earlier tee times, NBC Sports will present live coverage of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur final round tomorrow, April 1, beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Peacock, NBC Sports digital platforms and GOLF Channel and Peacock will present live coverage starting at 10 a.m. ET, and previously scheduled coverage will air from noon-3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

  • Wednesday, March 29th: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 1 (1:30pm ET on Golf Channel and Peacock)

  • Thursday, March 30th: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 2 (1:30pm ET on Golf Channel and Peacock)

  • Saturday, April 1st: Augusta National Women’s Amateur Round 3 (8am ET on Peacock and the NBC Sports App, 12pm ET on NBC)

Before return to Augusta National, Rachel Kuehn reflects on growth of women’s golf originally appeared on