For Anne Chen, this week’s Chattanooga Classic was winning time. For the first time.
In the 54-hole event over in Tennessee, the sophomore captured her first collegiate victory in the form of a five-stroke victory over East Carolina’s Kathryn Carson and UTSA’s Ana Gonzalez. Chen entered the final round Tuesday just two shots off the pace, but vaulted into the lead with a front-nine 32.
Then, birdies on 11 and 18 finished off a pristine bogey-free 66, and made it official. In her 13th try, Chen was a winner at the college level.
“This has been one of my goals since I started freshman year…This just helps me believe that I'm a good player. This is what my work has paid off,” Chen said on what the five-shot victory means to her.
The dividing line for Chen was her iron play, plain and simple. Facing complex contours and firm surfaces, Chen hit over 87% of the greens in regulation for the week, and gave herself countless chances at birdie. While 91 putts for the event is not an earth-shattering statistic, when you keep having makeable putts for birdie, you only need to convert on a few here and there.
“I think just hitting a lot of fairways the last day,” Chen said on what keyed her win. “And just overall in general, that helps [to] put me in a good position to hit a lot of greens. I was working on some stuff with [assistant coach Jon Whithaus], and just hitting the middle of the greens to give myself the best opportunities to make birdie.”
In the final round, Chen hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation, with the only missed green occurring when her approach shot struck the pin and rolled into a greenside bunker. So even one missed green is a little misleading.
There were times during the tournament that Chen had to right the ship, particularly after a +2 start through the first six holes of Sunday’s opening round. After bogeying the par-five sixth, Chen capitalized with short irons in hand on the seventh and 10th holes.
She birdied both after rolling in a pair of short birdie looks, and by the end of the round, Chen sat just two off the lead in a tie for sixth after an even-par 72 in windy conditions. Her week in contention had begun.
“Over approximately the last month, Anne has made some choices to get a little more focused on some elements of her mental game, and that work is starting to build up and pay off,” said Whithaus, who attributed Chen’s win to her poise.
Monday featured a hot start for the Clements High School alum, as Chen was so dialed in with her irons that she had two stress-free birdies through four holes. Yet a double-bogey on the 340-yard fifth threatened to derail her round—and week.
But Chen is no longer a freshman getting acclimated to college golf. She is a mega-talent who is on the rise. Three straight pure approaches on the next four holes resulted in birdies, and a second-round 69 put her within striking distance to run down Hannah Holzman of UTSA.
“Sometimes you hit perfect shots that don't work out well. And those will always be there, and Anne has grown a lot in her ability to be stable throughout rounds and throughout school tournaments,” Whithaus said.
That run after the double bogey, in hindsight, might be what kick-started her run at the title. Near the top of the leaderboard with just 18 holes to play, Chen just needed more early fireworks to take control of the tournament. On a challenging layout, she did exactly that.
“I didn’t really play with the leading group, so I didn't have that type of pressure to see firsthand how they were playing, what they were shooting. I didn't check the scoreboard because I just felt like if I played my best and gave it my all, and if I won, I won. And if I didn’t, it’s okay,” Chen said.
While the results on paper were not quite dominant, things had been trending in this direction for the Texas native in recent weeks. Chen’s improvements off the tee and on the greens this spring have been well documented, and after three-straight top-35 finishes, she made the leap at Council Fire Golf Club.
On an unconventional note, Duke did not compete as a program at the Chattanooga Classic, as junior Erica Shepherd and sophomore Phoebe Brinker were prepping for this week’s prestigious Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Freshman Rylie Heflin carded a 72 on Tuesday to move seven spots up the board into a tie for 26th, while junior Megan Furtney finished at +13 and in a share of 55th after making just four birdies and an eagle for the entire week.
“The ability to just stick to the simple process of taking care of their own business was great. Both Riley and Megan, and Anne, all did an excellent job of being diligent at the simple things that add up to good golf,” Whithaus said.
Next up is a busy few days for the program, as Shepherd and Brinker continue in the ANWA, which began Wednesday down in Georgia and finishes Saturday. Then, the typical lineup will reconvene at the Wolfpack Match Play from April 3-4.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.