On top of the world

Jess Baker, the 119th Women’s Amateur champion, looks back at the most important week of her golfing career to-date, and reflects on golf’s ability to take you from the lowest of lows to the top of the world

When Jess Baker boarded her flight home from a busy spring semester of college golf in the US, she was expecting to play a couple of tournaments and relax after a tough few months. A couple of weeks and eight rounds at Hunstanton Golf Club later, her summer plans, and her golfing future, have changed a great deal.

“All my plans for a chilled summer have gone out of the window, but for the best possible reason,” says Jess, the 119th winner of the Women’s Amateur Championship – one of the biggest prizes in women’s amateur golf globally. 

Having started the week ranked 518th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, and coming off a tumultuous spell in the US which included being dropped from the University of Central Florida women’s golf team, Jess had few expectations ahead of her return to the event, though she did reach the quarter-finals in 2021.

“I think every golfer goes through a period when golf is a grind,” says Jess, who has completed the first two years of her four-year golf scholarship, during which she’ll major in psychology. “I went through that in February. I was working harder than ever and still wasn’t meeting my expectations. Despite working so hard, I couldn’t make it into the team. I spent time talking to Andy [Paisley] and managed to eventually get through it.

“Going through that period and working my butt off made me a stronger person and a better version of yourself. Being able to look back on those hard times will allow me to appreciate the good times so much more.”

With her dad, Steve, caddying – now a long-term position – Jess just made it through the 36-hole strokeplay qualifying, holing a 25ft putt to reach the matchplay stages as one of the top-64.

“My goal for the week was to make the cut as I know matchplay is such an unpredictable format,” says Jess. “From that point, I was the underdog in every match. This year’s field, post-Covid, was much stronger than in 2021 but I knew it wasn’t about numbers, it was about momentum and if I could get up early I’d have a chance.”

As the week progressed, Jess built momentum. She beat Spain’s Lucia Lopez Ortega 4&3 in the round of 64 before overcoming Ireland’s Beth Coulter 2&1. Wins over Germany’s Charlotte Back (3&2) and Italy’s Emilie Alba Paltrinieri followed, setting up a semi-final with one of the tournament favourites, Scotland’s Hannah Darling, which Jess won 2&1.

On the eve of the final, Jess took time to speak to her coach, Hexham-based Andy Paisley, and record her thoughts – a technique she has learned from Andy and one which she uses regularly.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t sleep well before the final,” she says. “I knew it was going to be the biggest day of my golfing life, regardless of what happened. I managed to ground myself through some self-reflection and journaling after having a great chat with Andy on the phone. Getting into journaling has been huge and I have to give so much credit to Andy for his help on the mental side as well as the technical. Getting my thoughts down on paper and having something to reflect on when things are going poorly, and when they’re going well, has been so good for my game.

“All the work we’ve done made the final manageable. Being able to stay in my bubble and control my breathing was really important. I was working so hard on my breathing over the final putt and I’m proud that I did everything to the best of my attention in the final.”

Jess with the Women’s Amateur trophy © Harriet Lander, The R&A via Getty Images

In the 36-hole final, Jess won the closing four holes in a row to lead the 143rd-ranked player in the world, Sweden’s Louise Rydqvist, 3up at lunchtime. After her lead was extended to 5up through 28 holes, Louise won the 29th and 30th holes following bogeys from Jess, who bounced back at the 31st. A 22ft birdie putt at the par three 14th saw the Swede reply once more, but Jess held her nerve and rolled in a winning 5ft putt for birdie to earn the rich rewards which come with being the amateur champion.

With the win, Jess earned places in the 2022 Amundi Evian Championship, 2022 AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield, 2023 US Women’s Open at Pebble Beach and, by tradition, an invitation to the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur. 

“In terms of golf, everything has changed. I hadn’t won anything near this scale before… though winning the Women’s Amateur would change anyone’s plans. 

“Deep down, I’m still the same person. I still practice and work as hard as I did before. The only thing that will change is the people I’m competing against in some of the tournaments I’ll play. All I need to do is keep my concentration levels high, stick to the processes which I know work, and go out there and play golf.

“The big prize from Hunstanton is the doors that are now open for me. I’m going to take all the opportunities with both hands and see how things go. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get a trial go at tournaments like the Women’s British Open, US Open and Evian, and it’s a chance to make some memories, have some adventures and play with no pressure. 

“It’s going to be so cool to play the biggest events in the world on the most iconic courses.”

Following her win, Jess was also invited to the Celebration of Champions as part of the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, where she played four holes alongside major champion Anna Nordqvist, a past winner of the Women’s Amateur; defending Open champion Collin Morikawa; and men’s world number one amateur Keita Nakajima.

“It was so incredible,” she says of her trip to St Andrews. “Being on The Old Course with all the fans and playing with some of the best golfers on the planet is something I could never have dreamt of. Collin was lovely, he’s so down to earth and offered me loads of advice about college. Anna made me feel so welcome too and gave me loads of help ahead of the Evian.”

Jess and Steve Baker © Kevin Gibson, KG Photography

As well as crediting Andy, Jess credits the support of her mum and dad, and family dog Gunner with her win, as well as the support she received from members of Hunstanton, which she was made an honorary member of after the event.

“My dad was amazing all week. He’s not a professional caddy, but he’s exactly who I need by my side. He knows when I need picking up and when to tell me off. It will be great to share all the experiences coming up with him. Having spent all day with my dad, it was so nice to get back and get a hug from my mum too. The moment we had on the green after I holed the winning putt is something I’ll never forget. As for Gunner, he’s definitely become a star in his own right!”

On the support she received throughout the week, Jess added: “We only had accommodation booked until Thursday and a member of Hunstanton let us stay in her holiday cottage ahead of the final, which was so amazingly generous. Things like that went on all week, for lots of the girls, and support like that makes amateur tournaments so special. Hunstanton will definitely have a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.”

One of the first girls to go through the North of England Futures programme before progressing into the England regional squad – both coached by JJ Vallely – and then into the national system, Jess says she is proud to be blazing a trail for female golfers in the North East.

“It’s amazing to look at the pictures in the sunshine at Hunstanton with my UCF uniform on and think back to the winter training sessions at Matfen Hall with JJ,” she says. “It makes those sessions, some of which I really didn’t want to be part of, so worth it. Seeing what the girls following Rosie [Belsham] and I are doing now is lovely and it’s a real honour to be one of the first to come through what’s become such a successful system. The girls are all smashing it and I know we’ll see more girls winning big events for years to come.”

While it wasn’t quite the summer she had planned, Jess has certainly made the most of her time off. Shortly after we met, she competed in her first-ever major championship at Evian before celebrating her 20th birthday. By the time you read this, she’ll be taking part in the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield before returning to the US – where she’ll be welcomed into UCF’s Bounce House stadium by 45,000 fans during halftime in a football game. Then it’s off to Canada to take up an LPGA Tour invite, and before long there’s trips to Augusta and Pebble Beach – all of which goes to show how quickly golf can take you from the lowest of lows to the very top of the world.