The Masters: Laird Shepherd relishing flock from St Andrews to Augusta

He could well be a trail-blazer. It’s unlikely, after all, that any player has teed up in The Masters in its 88-year history after starting their journey to Augusta in St Andrews.

Laird Shepherd and caddie Andrew Davidson are being reunited for his appearance in The Masters. Picture: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images.
Laird Shepherd and caddie Andrew Davidson are being reunited for his appearance in The Masters. Picture: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images.

“It’s kind of like a golfers’ pilgrimage,” said Laird Shepherd, who is flying the English flag in the season’s opening major but lives in St Andrews with his girlfriend, Scottish Women’s champion Chloe Goadby. “From the Home of Golf to one of the most mystical places in golf, I suppose.”

Shepherd, who met Goadby when they were both at Stirling University, secured his trip to Georgia by winning last year’s R&A Amateur Championship at Nairn, where, in an astonishing turnaround, he recovered from being eight down after 17 holes to beat fellow Englishman Monty Scowsill at the 38th hole.

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The 24-year-old, who lists Rye in East Sussex as his home club but holds a St Andrews Links ticket and is a member of The Duke’s as well, made his major debut in last year’s Open at Royal St George’s, but this date has long been looming in his diary.

Laird Shepherd in action during last year's 149th Open at Royal St George’s in Kent. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.

“It’s a different test than what I’ve had so far as the Amateur champion,” he said. “The Open was a more familiar environment in terms of having played the golf course before and it was links golf whereas now I am finding myself heading over to America to play a different style of golf than what we certainly play here as amateurs.

“The venue is also very special and I think that everything that goes around it is what separates The Masters from other events. You speak to a taxi driver, for example, and they will probably know about The Masters and I think that’s a cool thing about it.

“When I watched it on TV as a kid, it just looked so pristine. It’s definitely the event I watched more than any other one. I’d sit up late at night and it gave you that magical feeling, I suppose, when you are 10 years old and dreaming about what it would be like to be there.

“I can’t really say that I dreamt of playing as that possibility seemed so far away back then, but it will be very cool to live out that dream and hopefully there will be some 10-year-olds back in the UK watching me hit a few shots.”

To help get himself prepared, Shepherd paid an early visit to Augusta National “I think it was really important to go there in January,” he said. “It’s going to be a bit different, of course, when I make my return as it’s going to be a lot busier, but I think that might actually help. When I was there, I was pretty much the only person and I was waited on hand and foot.

“There’s just so much history around the place and we had a quick tour that wasn’t actually that quick (laughing) as there was just so much to see. Over on the range, it’s like a Narnia as there’s so much land and so much stuff that you don’t see when you are watching it on TV.

“I was actually more nervous hitting my first tee shot in a practice round at Augusta than I was in the opening round of The Open. It was good to get the initial wow factor out of the way so that I can get down to business when I’m back.

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“It was pretty surreal hitting my tee shot at the first hole as there was literally no-one else there. Fortunately, I hit a good tee shot and I’d take that again in the first round. I said to one of the caddies who was helping me out that day that I felt as though I didn’t want to take a divot as it is so pristine.

“It was a lot of fun, especially the first round as there was no one else out there and it was all very surreal. Going back, it’s about getting the balance of enjoying it and preparing as well as possible to give myself a chance to play as well as I possibly can.”

Shepherd, who followed an opening 74 with a spirited 69, missed the cut at Royal St George’s, where he played with 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett and South African Dean Burmester.

“I guess what struck me most was that on practice days the guys were quite relaxed, then when you get into tournament days, they are extremely focused on what they are doing,” he said, recalling his major debut in Kent. “They are just really good at getting the most out of their game on any given day.

“It’s a very short data sample that I’ve been able to collect, but in The Open, for example, the two guys I played with for the first two rounds didn’t miss a putt inside 10 feet collectively. They were just getting up and down from everywhere by giving themselves makeable chances.

“That’s led to some of the changes I’ve made in my game the last few months and I’ve got a long way to go still as it’s a work in progress. But Danny Willett stands out in my mind as someone who exudes supreme confidence. You can see what he believes in what he is doing. If he hits a bad shot, he’s not fazed and that was quite interesting to see. I’ll now be learning more at Augusta.”

Shepherd’s title triumph at Nairn came hot on the heels of Louise Duncan, a current Stirling University student, landing the Women’ Amateur Championship at Kilmarnock (Barassie). Both players have blossomed under the watchful eye of Dean Robertson, a former Italian Open winner who runs the Stirling golf programme.

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“It’s probably never going to happen again that you get a very recent graduate and someone at Stirling at the time wins the Amateur Championship and the Women’s Amateur Championship in the same year,” said Shepherd, who is intending to turn professional straight after playing in the US Open in June.

“It’s amazing what Dean has done with the very limited resources he has and it’s only got more difficult with everything that has happened over the last two years. He does a really good job of developing people and, of course, he was on Louise’s bag at the Women’s Open at Carnoustie last year.

“He’s invested in people’s progress far beyond the day job. I think our sport really relies on people like him. People who give more than the minimum and Dean really does live it and breathe it with you.

“It was great to be picking his brain a little bit when I was with the Stirling team out at Al Ain in the UAE. I also had discussions with Louise out there about what it’s been like to be the Amateur champions. It’s a very unique position to be in.

“You get thrown in at the deep end in some ways. You go from playing in amateur events to major championships and also opportunities on the DP World Tour. It comes at you quite quickly and it’s been useful for both Louise and myself to know that Dean has been in that position when he was a pro.”

Shepherd is among six amateurs in the 2022 edition of The Masters, joining Austin Greaser (US Amateur runner-up), Stewart Hagestad (US Mid-Amateur champion), Aaron Jarvis (Latin American Amateur champion), Keita Nakajima (Asia-Pacific Amateur champion) and James Piot (US Amateur champion).

“I’ve been thinking about The Masters for ages and I was saying to one of my friends that you’ve got to realise that your life doesn’t end on 11 April,” said Shepherd. There’s stuff beyond that, so you can’t expect to have everything perfect that week.”

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The Amateur champion will have a small army of fans cheering him on in Georgia. “It will be like Christmas dinners every night as there will be a lot of people around the table,” he said, laughing.“My mum and dad are coming out and my stepbrother is going to be there for the first few days. Chloe is coming out and her mum. Andrew Davidson, my caddie, is also coming out, as is my friend, James Wilson, and some family friends as well.”

Once it’s all over, Shepherd will be the only player in the field heading back to St Andrews straight away, the others having to wait until mid-July for the 150th Open on the Old Course.

“I’d obviously love to qualify for it as well and that would complete a pretty special year of venues for me,” said Shepherd. “Every time I’m away and come back to St Andrews, I can’t imagine living anywhere else as I absolutely love it. It’s exciting to carry that over to Augusta and, in some ways, represent St Andrews as well.”

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