Overnight Women’s Open Star Donegan Set for Bel-Air Close-Up

By David Shefter, USGA

| Aug 01, 2023

Overnight Women’s Open Star Donegan Set for Bel-Air Close-Up

How does a golfer go from anonymous to overnight sensation? If you’re Aine Donegan, you shoot a 3-under-par 69 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the opening round of the 78th U.S. Women’s Open that includes a hole-out from the fairway for an eagle 2. Add a poignant backstory with a bubbly, outgoing personality and suddenly you become endearing to media and fans alike.

Donegan’s week on the Monterey Peninsula was magical, with only a disappointing final-round 77 dampening her spirits. In fairness, Donegan fell under the weather on championship Sunday.

Now the 21-year-old rising Louisiana State University junior from the Republic of Ireland will look for another repeat performance in the Golden State – albeit a few hundred miles to the south in Los Angeles – when she tees it up in the 123rd U.S. Women’s Amateur at Bel-Air Country Club.

Except this time, she won’t be an unknown commodity.

Going into the first women’s professional major ever conducted on the famed seaside layout, few outside of Ennis (her hometown), Baton Rouge (where she plays collegiately) or Lahinch (her home club) had ever heard of Aine Donegan, and most assuredly couldn’t pronounce her first name correctly (it’s ON-YAH).

But Donegan began to obtain some attention a few days before the championship’s opening tee shot after enduring a 27-hour travel odyssey that included multiple flights from Scotland, where she competed in the Vagliano Trophy, a Ryder Cup-style event between female amateurs from Great Britain and Ireland and Continental Europe.

By the time she arrived in San Francisco with her coach/caddie Gary Madden, her clubs never came down the carousel. Turns out, they were still in Newark, N.J. Even with the airline’s promise to deliver them the next day, Donegan had to send out a Tweet to expedite the process. Within three hours of the social post, the airline informed Donegan the clubs were en route to Pebble Beach (except when they arrived she discovered her driver was severely damaged).

That actually turned out to be a blessing. For her Monday practice round, Donegan borrowed a set of irons with a different driver. She hit the driver so well, it stayed permanently in the bag.

“We were walking to the ninth tee [during a practice round] and somebody in the crowd said, ‘Let’s see this new driver!” said Louisiana State women’s coach Garrett Runion. “She looked at me, rolled her eyes and laughed. Of course, she stripes it right down the middle of the fairway.”

Three-time U.S. Women's Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam (center) played a Tuesday practice round with Aine Donegan and later congratulated the Irishwoman on her stellar play in Round 1 at Pebble Beach. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

Three-time U.S. Women's Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam (center) played a Tuesday practice round with Aine Donegan and later congratulated the Irishwoman on her stellar play in Round 1 at Pebble Beach. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

Then on Day 1 of the championship, Donegan positioned herself in a four-way tie for second. Reporters flocked to this relatively unknown amateur, and she immediately made headlines with her gregarious personality. Her gallery, which began with a handful of friends and family, swelled into her own personal legion.

Despite an eight-hour time difference, the pubs back home were buzzing. Her older brother, Aaron, said friends were sending photos of people turning away from the stage at a music festival to watch what was unfolding on television from Pebble Beach. Another friend sent her a video of her walk-and-talk with NBC.

Even one of the country’s best known hurling commentators – hurling is bigger in Ireland than golf – was sending out messages on social media that went viral.

Three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, who played a practice round with Donegan, made sure to stop by and congratulate Donegan on the Round 1 performance.

“That was cool,” said Donegan, who saw her Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking® rapidly improve to 110. “I really couldn’t soak it all in at the start, but once I got home [from the championship], it was kind of crazy.”

That Donegan was even playing the U.S. Women’s Open was a story by itself. A fellow Irish golfer who plays on the Auburn women’s golf team, Anna Foster, suggested a qualifier in San Mateo, Calif., because she had an uncle that lived 20 minutes away. Donegan finished second (Foster missed by four strokes) to earn the final berth to Pebble Beach.

Then she flew back to Europe to compete in the Vagliano Trophy at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, where she beat LSU teammate and 2022 U.S. Women’s Open low amateur Ingrid Lindblad in singles, 2 and 1.

“I was definitely going into the U.S. Women’s Open with a bit of confidence,” said Donegan. “I putted quite well [in Scotland]. It didn’t make me over-think the U.S. Open because I had a tournament [the week before]. I was flying straight to Pebble. I didn’t have time to think about playing at Pebble for a major.”

Added Runion: “Ingrid doesn’t get beat very much. It’s hard to do. When [Aine] got her in a big tournament, that certainly was a confidence booster.”

Practice rounds with Sorenstam and major champion Lexi Thompson proved invaluable for Donegan, who had come into her own since transferring from Indiana University following her freshman season in 2022. Due to COVID, Donegan couldn’t take any official on-site visits, so she chose IU site unseen. Nor was she a blue-chip recruit on everyone’s radar.

But while she had a good year in Bloomington – she was second-team All-Big 10 – she wasn’t challenged enough by her teammates. That led her to the transfer portal and LSU felt right with its strong mix of international players (three Swedes and a Spaniard), great facilities and uber-competitive conference (SEC).

“I knew she was a good player,” said Runion, a former player himself at LSU who is entering his sixth season in charge of the women’s program. “I didn’t realize how good of a teammate she would be. When someone plays bad, she’s the first one to lift them up. When someone plays good, she is one of the first to congratulate them…That kind of stuff has been awesome.

“Everybody likes hanging out with her. She makes me laugh all the time. She’s a rock star.”

Aine Donegan will once again have swing coach Gary Madden on the bag at the U.S. Women's Amateur after the partnership worked so well at Pebble Beach in last month's U.S. Women's Open. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Aine Donegan will once again have swing coach Gary Madden on the bag at the U.S. Women's Amateur after the partnership worked so well at Pebble Beach in last month's U.S. Women's Open. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Motivated and challenged by LSU’s top players, Donegan qualified for all seven spring tournaments, including NCAA regionals and Nationals in Arizona, posting a pair of third-place finishes to earn honorable-mention All-American honors from the Women’s Golf Coaches of America (WGCA). She also got to attend the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April to watch current world No. 1 Lindblad, 2022 USA Curtis Cup competitor Latanna Stone (No. 30 in the WAGR) and Carla Tejedo, of Spain, further fueling her motivation. Currently, Donegan is the third-highest ranked Irishwoman behind Arizona State sophomore Beth Coulter (98) and Foster (102).

“Everything is set up for you to improve there,” said Donegan, who will be joined at Bel-Air by teammates Stone and rising sophomore Taylor Riley. “Just practicing and playing every day with the girls helps so much.”

Being named to Great Britain & Ireland’s Vagliano Trophy Team was a major statement. Add in her U.S. Women’s Open performance and Donegan is quickly mounting a strong competitive portfolio.

The extra media attention also never phased the outgoing Donegan.

“My phone was blowing up with all the messages,” she said. “I actually liked it. It doesn’t make me too nervous. I wasn’t complaining about it. Irish people are outgoing anyways. It’s just how I talk to my friends.”

The only thing Donegan would like back from Pebble is the final day, in which she shot 5 over par and missed low-amateur honors by one stroke to SEC rival Benedetta Moresco of Alabama. Donegan woke up that morning with a bad cold and that lack of energy translated to the golf course. Nevertheless, the moxie and battler within Donegan was on display, and she nearly tied Moresco, missing an 11-foot birdie on the par-5 closing hole.

Perhaps all the travel had finally caught up with the affable Irishwoman. She had flown from her California qualifier on June 5 back to Ireland for the Vagliano Trophy and then back to California. Now she’ll add more frequent-flier miles by going from Ireland to Los Angeles and then back to Ireland for the Ladies European Tour’s KPMG Irish Women’s Open at Dromoland Castle, a club that’s 10 minutes from her home, thanks to a sponsor’s invite. Then she’ll return to Baton Rouge to start her junior season with a team that has the potential to win a national title.

But she would dearly love to continue her recent form at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. While she’s never been to Bel-Air, Donegan has seen pictures of the George C. Thomas Jr. layout.

Then again, California has thus far proven to be a good spot for this Irishwoman.

“I like the California vibes,” she said. “Maybe it’s the food [or] the fresh air. I don’t know what it is. Just to be at such a pretty golf course like Bel-Air Country Club is going to be really, really good. Two of my college teammates will be there and my [swing] coach (Gary Madden) is going to caddie for me. He’s seen me grow up and knows my swing inside out. I couldn’t ask for anyone better as a coach or caddie.”

And given all the celebrity members at Bel-Air, Donegan, with all her newfound notoriety, should blend in quite well.

After all, she’s no longer Ms. Anonymous.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.