Youth isn’t wasted on the young — not when much of it is spent on the golf course.
Consider the far-from-squandered lives of Noah Goodwin and Erica Shepherd, a pair of 17-year-olds whose long hours on the links have been rewarded in ways that most of us can only dream of.
He is the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion. She holds the U.S. Junior Girls’ Amateur crown. Aside from being prestigious titles, this year they come with an historic perk.
For the first time, the USGA has granted the Junior champions exemptions into the U.S. Open (June 14-17) and the U.S. Women’s Open (May 31-June 3), which means that Goodwin and Shepherd will soon peg it in the highest wattage national championships of all, at Shinnecock Hills and Shoal Creek, respectively.
As the two teens prepare to tee it up against the titans, GOLF.com caught up with them to ask about their lives, on and off the course, how their nerves are holding up, and what chance they think they stand in the biggest tournaments of their lives — so far.
GOLF.com: How old were you when you took up golf?
Goodwin: I started going to the course with my dad almost as soon as I could walk. But I played pretty much all sports when I was a kid. I got a first-degree black belt in taekwondo when I was seven, and then they told me I couldn’t test for a second-degree for another six years, and I didn’t want to wait. So I started looking to other challenges. For some reason, I hated tee-ball. That’s when golf really became my thing.
Shepherd: I started swinging a club pretty much as soon as I was big enough to hold one. I was probably three. That was that. I never looked back.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Goodwin: To keep golf separate from my personal life. What you do on the course does not define you as a person.
Shepherd: Just to chill out and try not to worry too much about results.
How about the most memorable shot you’ve ever hit?
Goodwin: The Northeast Amateur, the par-3 15th hole at Wannamoisett. Four-iron for my first and only hole-in-one.
Shepherd: At the U.S. Girls Junior, on the 16th hole, a 5-iron from 197 to close out the championship match and win 3 and 2.
Where were you when you found out you had earned an invite to the U.S. Open and what was your reaction?
Goodwin: I was in bed and my dad called me. It was a total surprise. The rest of the day was a blur. I was in shock.
Shepherd: I was driving on my way to school when Tracy Parsons from the USGA called. I cried and then I called my dad and he started crying.
Whose game in the pro ranks most resembles yours?
Goodwin: I’d say Jordan Spieth. We go to the same coach and I admire how he goes about things. He’s not the longest hitter. He doesn’t overpower the course or his opponents. But he plays smart and to his strengths so he gets the most out of his game. At the same time, he’s humble. He makes time for people. He’s great with kids and the way he communicates with fans and the media.
Shepherd: Probably Lexi Thompson. Two of my strengths are my distance off the tee and my competitive edge. I love that about Lexi. Her power game and her fire and her dedication to fitness.
Which pro would you most like to be paired with?
Goodwin: Dustin Johnson. The way he hits it is just unreal. It would be incredible to get a chance to watch that up close.
Shepherd: Either Lexi or Brittany Lang. Brittany is just a really cool person. Plus, she’s a Duke-y, like me.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how nervous are you about playing in the Open?
Goodwin: I’m less nervous than I am excited. I see it as an opportunity to do something I’ve never done. One thing I know is that I absolutely love playing in front of crowds. I got a taste of that at the Junior Ryder Cup but this is going to be at a different level altogether. It’s going to be a dream come true.
Shepherd: I can’t wait. I love pressure. I don’t shy away from it. These are the opportunities I’m playing for.
After golf, what are your favorite things to do?
Goodwin: I love all music. Mainly rap, pop, EDM (electronic dance music), and I like playing sports for fun. I can be pretty much any sport, but the only sport I like practicing is golf.
Shepherd: Working or going to Indian University basketball games or high school sports events.
What would you say to other kids who don’t play golf to convince them to take it up?
Goodwin: I’d want to show them that golf is a sport you can play even when you’re older and still enjoy it with friends.
Shepherd: I’d remind them that with football or basketball or so many other sports, there comes a time when you’re probably going to have to give them up. Not golf. It’s a lifelong game.
Not that you’re old enough to gamble, but give us your Vegas odds to win the Open?
Goodwin: Oh, man. I don’t think I could even say.
Shepherd: 100 to 1.
Quick, how many U.S. Junior champs can you name who went on to win the U.S. Open?
Goodwin: Tiger Woods. Jordan Spieth. Phil Mickelson. [Editor’s note: Partial credit. Woods and Spieth are correct; Mickelson is not. Johnny Miller also won both titles.]
Shepherd: Hmm … wow. I know that Morgan Pressel did really well at the U.S. Open as an amateur. Oh, wait … Lexi Thompson! [Editor’s note: Correct! And going farther back: Nancy Lopez and Mickey Wright.]
Have you spent any time trying to envision your opening tee shot at the Open?
Goodwin: Many times. A tight little draw down the middle. Just get it in play.
Shepherd: No. But I have imagined myself sinking the final putt for the win.