Who is Áine Donegan, the Irish amateur taking on the world’s best at Pebble Beach?

The Clare 21-year-old has shot into contention at the Women’s US Open, her first professional golf tournament: ‘Every five minutes is a pinch-me moment’

A three-under-par opening round for Áine Donegan in the Women’s US Open at Pebble Beach – in her first start in a professional tournament – is truly what dreams are made of.

Donegan finished the day only one shot off the lead. She was 10 shots ahead of the world number one Jin Young Ko, seven shots ahead of Lydia Ko and a whole host of the best women pros in the world. Leona Maguire equalled her score on Thursday, giving the top of the leaderboard a distinctly Irish feel.

Her first round had a few moments she will never forget. After a nervy start with two bogeys, on the 15th hole, she holed a 96-yard approach for eagle.

“When I hit it, I knew it was good. It was just bounce, bounce and drops in. I have my family here, and some other Irish who live in the United States and there was a big scream from the Irish people. Just one of those things. I’m back to even and we start again. I was really pleased with it.”


On the 17th hole at Pebble Beach, famous for arguably Jack Nicklaus’ best ever shot at the 1972 US Open where he hit the flag on the par 3, Donegan almost did the same and left just three feet for birdie at the famous hole. On her back nine she had four more birdies, with two bogeys, which all added up to 69 shots.

“I had a great feeling where my ball was going to go all day, it is not a feeling you get too often in golf.”

It is no surprise then that Donegan said it is the best round she has ever played. But who is the amateur golfer who caught the headlines on Thursday?

Donegan is a 21-year-old from Ennis in Co Clare and plays in Lahinch. Some might say Lahinch is like the Pebble Beach of Ireland, one of the best links courses in the country. She played camogie and soccer at underage level before focusing on golf.

She earned a golf scholarship to play at Indiana University before transferring to Louisiana State University where she has excelled on the collegiate circuit, getting an honourable mention as an All-American. This season she has had two top-3 finishes, a seventh and three top-20s as LSU reached the NCAA finals. On the home circuit, Donegan showed some form recently with a third-place finish at the Irish Women’s Close Championship.

At 144 in the world amateur rankings, she is not considered as prestigious a talent as her fellow countrywoman Leona Maguire was at that age, who was the longest reigning world number one amateur before turning professional. Indeed, it was a relative surprise when Donegan qualified for the US Open, earning her spot during a weekend at Peninsula Golf Club in California, where she showed great grit and skill in windy conditions.

It appears already Donegan has shown an aptitude for the big moments and is rapidly improving as a golfer. She has certainly made the most of the US Open week so far, despite some setbacks.

Earlier in the week, Donegan lost her golf clubs when travelling from the Vagliano Trophy in Scotland, an amateur team event.

“I flew from Scotland to Dublin, to Newark to San Francisco. When I arrived, the clubs weren’t there. We had been travelling at least 30 hours by then. They [United Airlines] said the clubs would arrive the next day and they hadn’t. I sent out a tweet that made a few headlines.”

Donegan tweeted her dismay at finally receiving the clubs, only to see her driver head was broken.

“I had to play my first practice round with new clubs. I hit the Ping driver really well, so I said to my coach Gary [Madden], I might change to this driver for the week. He said we are going to have a dilemma when your clubs arrived. The clubs arrive and my driver is completely smashed. We only had one choice then!”

Donegan has been enjoying the week, meeting her heroes like Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie West. But one of the main highlights was a practice round with 10-time Major champion Annika Sorenstam.

“The whole thing has been surreal. Every five minutes is a pinch-me moment. Even young girls coming up looking for autographs, to do it at a place like Pebble Beach is really special.

“I played 18 holes with Annika on Tuesday, and honestly one of the best days of my life. You learn a lot from her, she is the icon of the game, the GOAT of the game. Annika is so down-to-earth. She was just as nice to me as my parents and everyone else on the tour.”

For the rest of the tournament, Donegan wants to see more windy and difficult conditions as she feels that is where she thrives given her background in Lahinch and the similarities to Pebble Beach.

“It is a little bit like links, not exactly like it. I love to play to wind, I would actually like the wind to pick up a little bit. The qualifier I played to get into this was extremely windy. It’s like Irish courses, some of the shots you have to flight it down. I heard the wind is going to pick up over the week. Growing up in Ireland, that really helps.”

Donegan starts her second round at 9.18pm Irish time, where anything that happens from here is a bonus.

David Gorman

David Gorman

David Gorman is a sports journalist with The Irish Times