20 March 2022: She is 15, but let that not fool you into imagining that she might be just another enthusiastic teenage golf prospect. Avani Prashanth is the real deal, a young girl sharpening her golf tools at a precociously hectic pace. The girl from Bengaluru held her own against the best in the world playing the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley this week. Avani finished in T6 with a phenomenally consistent effort.
This is another feather in her cap, having already won the All India Ladies and Amateur (Stroke Play and Match Play) tournament and the All India Junior Girls, the youngest player ever to do so. She is also a two time winner on the Hero Women’s Professional Golf Tour. She finished T16 in the Women’s Amateur Asia Pacific Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi last year.
Playing a brutally long course at the Sage Valley Golf Club, Avani showed her stripes with a steady 70-73-73 return against her name. It was a remarkable effort for the relatively inexperienced Indian, in a field consisting of established American amateur names such as the second ranked Alexa Pano and the fourth ranked Bailey Shoemaker. The field also contained the much celebrated Megha Ganne.
Just for perspective – in the final round, Pano shot 76; Shoemaker shot 78 and surrendered a seven stroke lead; Megha Ganne settled for a 76. Pano finished the week at five-over, ten strokes adrift of Shoemaker and the eventual winner in a playoff, Amalie Leth-Nissen. Ganne tied for sixth with Prashanth and Kelly Xu.
Only eight women managed to score par or better on the demanding course at Sage Valley, where the championship tees for men measure a humongous 7.437 yards. Only two girls managed to stay at par or better in each of the three rounds that make up this prestigious competition.
Incredibly, Avani made eleven birdies and an eagle during the week. That was a birdie and an eagle better than the winner, Leth-Nissen. Shoemaker made thirteen birdies through the first two rounds, but the wheels fell off for her on Saturday, costing her a seemingly certain victory.
Anna Davis finished in third place, riding a bogey free 67 on the opening day. She shot a dozen birdies through 54 holes. Gianna Clemente is the tenth ranked amateur, and she did well to finish the week in fourth with impeccable scores of 70-72-72. Clemente kept it relatively needing just eight birdies to finish the week at 2-under.
The fifth placed Shannon Tan also had eight birdies through the week, shooting 72-70-73. Kelly Xu, who finished alongside Avani, saw progress through the week. Starting with a 73, she went on to shoot 72 and 71 in the other two rounds, with just seven birdies.
Megha (69-71-76) was bogey free in the opening round, but a final round 76 knocked her down the board. She collected ten birdies this week.
In this context, Avani’s performance needs to be rated as a supremely promising effort heading into the Augusta National Women’s Amateur starting in about ten days from now.
“Her length off the tee helped Avani,” said her delighted father. “She was able to sustain an incredibly high level of accuracy under demanding conditions. While we await the numbers from the final round, she is over 80% with the fairways and nearly 75% with the greens in regulation.”
“The greens were measuring 11.5 on the stimpmeter and the pins were tucked into the deep end of the greens on several holes.”
Avani made a nervous beginning on Thursday. She suffered consecutive bogeys at the second and third and was down three strokes reaching the eighth tee. The determined golfer from Bengaluru showed her temperament, with a remarkable turnaround from there.
The 125th ranked Indian made her first birdie of the week at the par-5 eighth hole, gritting her teeth just ahead of the turn. Avani thrust herself up the leaderboard with an emphatic back nine – gaining four strokes in six holes from the 12th – for a first round card of 2-under 70.
Riding a wave of confidence Avani was five-under after making three birdies over the first five holes on the second day. But the going got considerably tougher from there. Four bogeys and a double on the par-4 14th damaged her prospects and despite birdies at the 11th and 17th holes, it was all she could do to post 73.
At 1-under through 36, Avani was a full ten strokes behind the runaway leader Shoemaker. In the end, it is all the more creditable for the young golfer to finish just five strokes off the winning pace at Sage Valley.
In the final round, Avani expressed her ambitions with a brilliant eagle on the par-4 third hole to return below par. Playing the most challenging setup of the week, Avani did well to come home with just four bogeys and an impressive birdie on the par-5 15th hole for another 73.
“I feel good about my game,” said a delighted Avani. “Course management and putting are going to be key for me as I look ahead to perhaps another important week.”
“The course this was pretty long. I was using nine-iron and rescue to reach the greens at Sage Valley. So it was a challenging test and I am happy to have done reasonably well.”
The Sage Valley roster is like the who’s who of men’s golf. Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Holland, Sam Burns, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa are just a few from an illustrious list of winners. The women’s event is still nascent and at 15, Avani can hope to return again next year and make an even more impressive showing.
The men’s event also needed a playoff. Caleb Surratt (67-65-70) was tied with a determined Luke Potter (68-66-68) at 14-under through three rounds. Surratt edged Potter out in the playoff that ensued the 54th hole. Ben James finished in third at 10-under, Nicholas Gross in fourth at 7-under.
Most importantly, Sage Valley is barely 30 mins from Augusta National and the week would have provided her valuable energy and insight into the state of her game. She will also have used the first of three weeks in the Georgia surroundings to familiarise herself with the conditions she is likely to endure at the Champions Retreat for the first two rounds and the hallowed Augusta course for the final round.