Gianna Clemente watched Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi battle in 2019 at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur and, like so many, thought: I really want to do that.
Clemente, 14, will be the youngest player in the field at this year’s event, but it still took longer to get there than she expected. Clemente became the youngest player to Monday-qualify for three consecutive LPGA events last year, and the only part of that stretch that surprised her coach, Spencer Graham, was that she didn’t make the cut in any of them.
Clemente, who turns 15 on March 23, isn’t the favorite at this year’s ANWA, which will be held March 29-April 1, the week before the 87th Masters. That would be Rose Zhang, the Stanford super sophomore who first rose to No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings back in September 2020. It’s worth noting, however, that junior golfers have won the past two ANWAs, with 16-year-old Anna Davis winning last year and Japan’s Tsubasa Kajitani triumphing in 2021 at age 17.
Clemente, who is set to graduate in 2026, heads into this week’s Junior Invitational at Sage Valley as the No. 1 player in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings. She’s No. 57 in the WAGR. At age 11, she became the third-youngest player to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“Seeing the invitation on my front doorstep was like, woah,” said Clemente, who recently tied for 16th at the Epson Tour’s season-opening event in Winter Haven, Florida, a field that included a number of card-carrying LPGA members and two major champions.
The Clemente family poured a lot into golf early on, with the family deciding to split their time between Ohio and Florida after Gianna finished the third grade. That’s also when she made the switch to online school.
“I remember them kind of sitting me down and saying ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking about doing, would you be OK with that?’ ” said Gianna. “Obviously 8-year-old me was like ‘Oh yeah, sure, why not?’ I don’t think I fully realized what I was getting myself into at the time. But I’m glad I did it. Obviously, it wouldn’t work out for everybody. It’s not meant for everybody. But it worked out for me, and it’s working pretty good right now.”
Patrick Clemente called it a weather-dominated decision. He and his wife Julia saw a spark in their daughter’s eyes and a desire to get out and practice more than Ohio winters would allow. South Florida also offered more tournament options, and Gianna had a number of friends living in the area.
Graham, who has worked with Gianna since age six, said he’s most impressed with her “even-keeled killer instinct.”
Patrick agrees, noting that whether it’s pool or ping pong, Gianna, a winner of over 130 tournaments, doesn’t take losing lightly.
“If anything, we have to force her to relax sometimes rather than be more intense,” he said.
After Clemente came up short in the U.S. Girls’ Junior last summer, Graham and Patrick sat down and quickly hashed out two areas that needed attention: distance control with her putting and wedge game.
“She was more of a hitter of the ball as opposed to a more rolling type of stroke,” said Graham, who runs Junior Golf Performance Academy in Naples, Florida.
It wasn’t long after those concentrated efforts that Clemente went on a roll at LPGA Monday qualifying. The rhythm and timing of her stroke, he said, is now a strength.
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Graham describes Gianna as the straightest ball-striker he’s ever seen in junior golf, and that the next level of growth entails areas of the game she’s never worked on, such as learning how to shape the ball and trouble shots.
“She’s a pure ball-striker,” said Graham, who caps a high-level program he calls ‘The Process’ to 15 elite juniors from around the world.
Gianna reports that she’s recently become passionate about fitness as she looks to add more distance to her game. She’s added 10 yards in the past six months.
She’s also newly obsessed with paddle-boarding and, like most teenagers, admits to spending too much time on her phone listening to music, mostly country.
But really, it’s golf that consumes her heart.
“I really spend all my time on the golf course and that’s by choice,” she said. “A lot of people think that’s by force, but it isn’t. I’d spend 24/7 on a golf course if somebody would let me.
“Outside of golf, I’m a normal teenager.”
Gianna signed with IMG last fall for name, image and likeness (NIL) representation. The family has taken a long-term approach when it comes to partnerships and hasn’t yet signed with anyone.
Patrick said the two main takeaways from that Monday-qualifying spree were that she loved it and learned what she needed to work on.
“The level of short game and wedge game that we saw was a whole other level,” said Patrick. “It was great for her to see that first-hand, and she saw it literally for 20 days straight.”
The Clementes took a preview trip last December to Champions Retreat Golf Club, where the first two rounds of the ANWA are played on the Island and Bluff nines.
This year, the top 30 players and ties will advance to Saturday’s final round, held over Augusta National. But first, every player in the field will play a practice round over the iconic course.
For the first time ever, the first two rounds will be broadcast on Golf Channel from 1:30-3:30 p.m. ET. NBC will air the final round from 12-3 p.m. ET. Clemente had quite a bit of experience last year playing in front of crowds and television cameras.
“The most special thing that I can say about her,” said Graham, “is that she continues to defy the thought process of how good can a young girl can be against older players.
“She thrives in the pressure.”