2023 U.S. Women’s Open: Amateur Aine Donegan’s exhausting, exhilarating, ‘surreal’ week leads to 69
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Aine Donegan posed for the perfect picture. She stood arm in arm with her caddie, the Pacific Ocean in the background. Snap and done.
Again, she posed for the perfect picture, this time with her mother, father and brother.
It was a memory (twice) captured forever. And for good reason. Donegan hadn’t just completed her first round in her first professional event. She had just wrapped up a 3-under 69 at Pebble Beach Golf Links for a share of the clubhouse lead in the U.S. Women’s Open.
“Pretty surreal, to be honest,” Donegan, a 21-year-old rising junior at LSU, said when asked to detail the day.
That aptly describes her overall experience this week. Well before she teed off at 7:33 a.m. local time on Thursday, Donegan had made headlines. Though she arrived in San Francisco around 4 a.m. on Sunday after 30 hours of travel from Dublin, Ireland, her clubs had not. When they were still missing come Monday, she @’d United Airlines in a tweet.
Donegan, who normally uses Ping irons, played her Monday practice round with a borrowed set of Pings and played quite well. Her practice partner, Lexi Thompson, wondered, “You sure you want to go back to your old driver?”
Donegan pondered that herself after a particularly good tee shot on the 16th hole. “I might keep this driver,” she thought.
“And then I had no choice but to keep it.”
When her clubs eventually arrived on Tuesday, they did so with a broken driver. “Completely smashed,” she said.
That club, a Honma, wasn’t easily replaceable. So, for the better, the Ping stayed. She also got a new 3-wood and hybrid and added new wedges to her reclaimed bag.
“It was a little bit frustrating, but Gary [Madden], my coach, my caddie, said this is just – don’t let this be another distraction. At the end of the day there is nothing you can do about it,” she said.
Things happen for a reason, she figured.
“That’s just who she is,” said LSU women’s assistant coach Alexis Rather. “Nothing really bothers her. She’s just kind of laid back and goes with the flow.”
“She never sees the bad in anything,” added Garrett Runion, LSU women’s head coach.
Donegan, originally from Ennis County Claire, Ireland, came to the bayou as a transfer from Indiana University.
Runion had a pretty good idea of what he was getting. At least he thought he did.
“I knew she was a good player,” he said, “but I had no idea how good a teammate she would be.”
Runion praised Donegan’s ability to push both herself and her teammates, which include current world No. 1 amateur Ingrid Lindblad, No. 29 Latanna Stone and No. 92 Carla Tejedo Mulet.
Donegan is ranked No. 144.
The Tigers were among the favorites to challenge for this year’s NCAA title, but didn’t advance to match play. Donegan, who had played consistently well in the spring, shot 78-78-81-71.
“She hung onto that one a bit,” Runion said, noting a rare time that Donegan let anything negative linger.
It didn’t last. She ended up qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open by finishing second at the San Mateo, California, site and entered this week off a 2-and-1 singles win over Lindblad at the Vagliano Trophy, an amateur competition between GB&I and Continental Europe.
That’s when the travel nightmare began. She flew from Dublin to Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco. More than a full day on the move – for her, at least, not her clubs.
But nothing was going to ruin this week. Tuesday, she played a practice round with Annika Sorenstam. What could be better?
Round 1, it turned out, despite a bogey-bogey beginning.
“She was a little nervous to start, but she settled down out there,” said Madden, Donegan’s swing coach since age 8 and her caddie this week. “She hit it really well. Really well.”
After a trio of pars, Donegan said she got a sense of calm during the most energetic highlight of her round, a 96-yard hole-out for eagle at the par-4 15th.
“It sounded like a soccer match, the roars,” older brother Aaron said.
The family is staying this week in an Airbnb in Watsonville, an hour’s drive (depending on traffic) from Pebble Beach.
Aaron, mom Ann and dad Greg, were watching from the outset on Thursday. As were Runion and Rather, along with a couple of family friends and even some Irish neighbors who were vacationing in the area and decided to stick around to watch Aine.
That crowd steadily grew with Aaron noting, “We’ve run into about 30 Irish people around here” – which accounted for the extra applause on No. 15.
“Wait until even more learn there’s an Irish at the top,” he said.
Aine took the outright lead in her first major, her first start in a professional event, thanks to a trio of birdies from Nos. 2-4. She added another at the par-5 sixth and was alone at 4 under par.
“I was walking on the seventh, my third-to-last hole, and all I hear is, Well done Aine!, and look over and guy’s wearing a big Irish jersey,” Donegan said.
After narrowly missing a 15-footer for birdie at the short par 3, she closed with a bogey at the ninth for her 69. That ultimately placed her one back of co-leaders Xiyu Janet Lin and Hyo Joo Kim.
But, as is Donegan’s way, the finish wasn’t bothersome.
“She’s fine,” Runion said. “If you told her at the start of the day that she’d shoot 69, she’d have taken it.”
It’s the second consecutive year one of Runion’s players has been near the top of the leaderboard on Day 1 of the women’s biggest major. Lindblad shot 6-under 65 and was solo-second after 18 holes at Pine Needles. She eventually tied for 11th.
Donegan won’t tee off again until 1:18 p.m. local time on Friday. She’ll get some rest and hang with her family back at the rental house, and try to not make too much sense of this “surreal” week, not just yet.
“The whole thing has been a pinch-me moment,” she said.
“Even just walking to the putting green and young girls asking for autographs and stuff. It’s like, that was me. And to do it at a place like Pebble Beach is something I’ll never forget.”
The job, of course, is not yet done. The attention that built near the end of her first round will be there from the start in Round 2.
Asked what advice he would give Donegan going forward, Runion replied, “That you belong. Just be you.