Founded by Jack Burke Jr. and Jimmy Demaret, this week’s U.S. Women’s Open venue, Champions Golf Club, is well named: it has hosted its share of memorable championships. It was here that Arnold Palmer won the 1966 Houston Open, that Ben Crenshaw captured the 1973 Southern Amateur, that the U.S. Ryder Cup team dominated Europe in 1967, and that Tiger Woods, in the midst of an all-time heater, won the Tour Championship in 1999. The most recent champion at Champions, however, is not as well known—though she deserves to be.
In September of 2018, Kelsey Chugg walked off the 18th green at Norwood Hills Country Club having experienced something new. The 27-year-old Utahn had just fallen in the championship match of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur to medalist Shannon Johnson. It was the first match-play loss of Chugg’s USGA career, bringing her record to 11-1.
Kelsey Chugg had toyed with the idea of professional golf when she graduated from Weber State in 2013. A Wildcat for her final two collegiate seasons, Chugg earned Second Team All-Big Sky honors as a junior and First Team as a senior. But after a few attempts at Q-School, she decided amateur golf suited her better. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to turn pro and go play mini-tour [events],’” she explains, “but for me I would have had to continue working and supporting myself. I didn’t know that I wanted to have that stress all the time.”
So Chugg settled down in Utah, the state where she attended college and spent many summers as a kid. She felt comfortable there, and she had strong roots in the local golf community. Even if she didn’t join the professional ranks, she wanted to build her career in the game. Over the next few years, she worked her way up in the Utah Golf Association, and by 2017 she was the membership director.
On the golf course, Chugg remained a dominant force. In 2017, she trounced BYU’s Anna Kennedy to win her fourth Utah State Women’s Amateur. That’s right, her fourth. Clearly, Chugg loves match play. “It makes me hyper-focus,” she says. “I just have to worry about my next shot.”
Later that month, she qualified for her first USGA event, the 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur.
The tournament was supposed to take place in October at Quail Creek in Naples, Florida. But because of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, the Women’s Mid-Am was delayed and relocated. Champions Golf Club stepped in as the new host.
Champions, too, was recovering from a hurricane, but by November, the club was ready to welcome the 132-woman field. While Kelsey Chugg was excited for the opportunity, the delay had done no favors for her game. Fall weather in Utah is unreliable, so it was difficult for her to stay in top form.
In early November, Chugg flew by herself to Houston. She boarded with members who lived near the course and got in a few practice rounds. “Going there, I didn’t have a ton of expectations,” she says. “But I certainly expected to play better than I did.”
After starting the U.S. Women’s Mid-Am with a pair of pars, Chugg made back-to-back double bogeys. She added a triple bogey three holes later, wrote down a score of 42 for her first nine, made another double bogey on her 13th hole, and bogeyed all of her final five holes. She signed for an 85. “I looked at flights home for the next night,” she recalls.
Chugg had carried her own bag for that miserable opening 18. But before leaving the course, she ran into Annette Gaiotti, a fellow Utah resident playing in the event. “[Annette] had hired a club caddie for the week, but her husband, Don Goldberg, offered to walk with me the next day,” Chugg says. With Goldberg by her side the next day, she bounced back with a 72 and made the cut for the match-play portion of the event.
Match play. Kelsey Chugg’s bread and butter.
Chugg dusted her first opponent 6&5 to make the round of 32. At that point, Don Goldberg, her lucky charm, had to leave. After a replacement caddie bailed on her, volunteer caddie master Chris Schuhmann took her bag himself. Together, Chugg and Schuhmann closed out her next four opponents 4&2, 3&2, 6&4, and 3&1. She needed just 76 holes across five matches to reach the championship match against career-amateur legend Mary Jane Hiestand.
There was more at stake in this Mid-Am final than usual. A month prior, the USGA had announced that the 2017 men’s and women’s Mid-Amateur champions would receive invitations to the next year’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. This had never happened before. Chugg had talked with her work friends in Utah about how great it would be to compete in the national championship. Now, at Champions Golf Club, she thought back to those idle conversations. “I was just thinking, ‘I hope I didn’t jinx myself!’”
She didn’t. After an opening bogey, she won three of the next four holes and never looked back, beating Hiestand 3&1.
Kelsey Chugg had won the first USGA championship she had ever played in. She had recovered from an 85 in stroke play to prove once and for all that her match-play prowess traveled outside of Utah. And she had earned a berth at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open.
After the championship match at Champions, Chugg received plaudits from the USGA and the Burke family in the clubhouse. But she was eager to get home. That night, she flew back to Utah. At the Salt Lake City airport, she exited the terminal to a hero’s welcome.
— Utah Golf Assn (@UtahGolfAssn) November 17, 2017
The following May, Kelsey Chugg played practice rounds for the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open with Stacy Lewis, Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, and Catriona Matthew. In August, she participated in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur. In September, she again reached the final match of the Mid-Am, which she lost to Shannon Johnson. But Chugg’s reputation as a match-play killer was firmly in place.
She now serves as Associate Director of Golf for Salt Lake City, supporting municipal golf courses and making sure the staffs have the resources they need. It’s a busy job. But that doesn’t mean she’s any less dangerous on the course. Chugg nearly won a fifth Utah State Women’s Amatuer in 2020 and was named Utah’s female golfer of the decade. In September 2021, she’ll make her fourth appearance in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Am at Berkeley Hall Club. Anything can happen once match play starts in that event, but one thing is certain: no one in the field is going to want to see her name appear across from K. Chugg.