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‘Underdog’ Hannah Darling grabs Augusta National Women’s Amateur lead

‘Underdog’ Hannah Darling grabs Augusta National Women’s Amateur lead

EVANS, Ga. – When Hannah Darling received the text message that Wednesday’s first-round tee times for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur had been pushed back an hour because of weather, she had just slung the strap of her golf bag over her shoulder, prepared to head down for breakfast at the player hotel.

“So, I put my golf bag right back down and got back into bed and slept for another 30 minutes,” Darling said.

And then she went out and carded an championship-record eight birdies around Champions Retreat.

Darling’s 6-under 66 has the South Carolina junior from Midlothian, Scotland, a shot clear of Italy’s Francesca Fiorellini, Thailand’s Eila Galitsky and Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad. While Lindblad, a fifth-year senior at LSU and the world’s top-ranked amateur, was the popular pick to win entering this championship, Darling’s odds weren’t far off.

Just don’t tell Darling that.

In her eyes, she's the underdog.

Darling entered college as the reigning British Girls champion and internationally, she’s notched top-10s in big events such as the World Amateur Team Championship and European Ladies Amateur while also reaching the semifinals of the Women’s British Amateur in 2022. Starting with a runner-up finish in her college debut at the 2021 Annika Intercollegiate, a showing that set unrealistic personal expectations, Darling posted 12 other top-10s in her first two seasons with the Gamecocks. The only knock on Darling was that she hadn’t won at this level.

But after just one top-10 in her first five starts this season, Darling’s instructor, Ian Muir, who is the director of golf at St. Andrews, flew to the U.S. to spend a few days with his star student. They tightened up a few things and worked extensively on short game, with Darling grooving a repeatable action from a variety of lies around the green.
Most importantly, they sharpened Darling’s edge. She was miffed that she was left off the Annika Award Watch List this spring (full transparency: this scribe helps select that list), and so she and Muir dubbed this “the year of the underdog.”

Darling then went out and won the prestigious Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, sharing medalist honors and beating a slew of All-Americans, including Lindblad, who has three wins and hasn’t finished outside the top five this season.

“I really felt like it was a long time coming,” Darling said. “To kind of get over the line and get it done there was amazing.”

A few days later, Darling was runner-up at the Valspar Augusta Invitational at Forest Hills, just a few miles from Augusta National. She then made her LPGA debut at the Fir Hills Seri Pak Championship and missed the cut by five shots. A brief setback, but a great chance to reflect.

“I've been playing some really good golf, and I think that I just made some decisions that I wasn't very happy with,” Darling admitted. “… I had to chase birdies, which isn't like me, and it's not what I've done when I played my best, so it actually was a great chance to take a step back and say that's not how I want to act, and this is how I want to act going forward.”

Darling arrived in the Augusta area as strong as she’s ever been mentally. And on Wednesday, she didn’t chase birdies; they came to her.

Under the watchful eye of Scottish major champ Catriona Matthew, this year’s GB&I Curtis Cup captain who followed Darling’s entire round, Darling also became the first player in championship history to birdie each of her first three holes. She made a 10-footer down the hill at No. 1, then rolled in a 30-footer up the hill on the next hole, before canning a 4-footer at the par-5 third.

Borrowing a line from another major winner, Annika Sorenstam, Darling said to her caddie, “I just want to make a par.”

“And I made a bogey,” she added. “I was settled down. I was fine. But yeah, I just made some great putts that normally wouldn't drop, but they did today.”

Darling had some good up-and-downs, too, a couple with the putter and the best one from long and right of the green at the par-4 13th. “Pretty much dead, where you'd put all the crosses on your yardage book,” Darling said.

South Carolina coach Kalen Anderson also followed Darling’s opening round and said, “The talent is obviously there, all the pieces are there, this is her just stringing them together.” She also noted that Darling’s edge likely comes from all those cold, wet and blustery days in Scotland grinding on her game on what Darling calls the “secret range” on St. Andrews’ Jubilee Course.

“When you grow up in that kind of weather, you have to have a toughness and an edge,” Anderson argued. “How do you not?”

On one of the worst days, Darlings says she and Muir documented the horrible conditions with a selfie.

“We've got about as many woolly hats and as many neck buffs as we can put on, and it is actually chucking it down with rain, and it was absolutely freezing in the middle of winter,” Darling described, “and we took a selfie to remember, it's part of the good times, but it's also part of the hard work.”

Barring a shocking collapse, Darling figures to be competing Saturday at Augusta National. The high temperature that day is forecasted to be in the high 60s, and there will be a healthy wind as well. Darling wouldn’t mind both dials being turned the wrong way.

“I’m from Scotland,” Darling said Wednesday. “I kind of know how to handle the wind a little bit.”

And if she gets her wish, it’d be hard not to like Darling’s chances, especially considering three of the four previous ANWA winners were also 18-hole leaders.

Just don’t call her a favorite.