Disrupted plans may end up working in Shepherd’s favor

Erica Shepherd was in Greenwood back in late June, running some last-minute errands for what she thought was going to be an extended trip to Switzerland — a few days golfing for the United States team in the Arnold Palmer Cup, followed by seven weeks studying abroad.

Just minutes after coming home from a nail appointment, however, she found out the study program was being canceled, throwing the back half of her summer into disarray.

As has often been the case for the Center Grove graduate, however, things had a way of working out for the best.

Shepherd took advantage of some unexpected extra time at home by making some changes to her golf game, ones that she hopes will pay dividends during her senior season at Duke. The Blue Devils open their fall season today at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.

“I ended up coming home and having no idea, because I was signed up for no golf tournaments, nothing,” Shepherd said of her early return from Switzerland after posting a 3-1 record in her matches at the Arnold Palmer Cup over the first three days of July.

The planned stay in Europe wasn’t supposed to include a lot of golf for Shepherd. With some extra time back in her hands after her academic plans were scratched, she decided to put it to use by changing her grip.

“Anyone who plays golf knows that that is just kind of a grueling process; it takes a long time to feel comfortable,” she said. “So I was able to do that, and I think that now, being back at Duke early, I feel really settled in. … I think I am more ready to go than I would have been, which is great, and I feel really good about the changes that I’ve made.”

Shepherd was already one of the top amateur players in the country as it was. She posted a 72.24 stroke average as a junior, racking up four top-five tournament finishes and ending the season ranked as the No. 12 collegiate player in the nation. She begins the season on the watch list for the ANNIKA Award — the women’s college golf equivalent of the Heisman Trophy — for the third time in her Duke career.

Prior to her briefer-than-planned trip overseas, Shepherd took part in the Epson Tour’s Carolina Golf Classic in early June, finishing as the low amateur with a 1-under-par total of 68-72-72-71—283. It was her fifth time finishing with low amateur honors at a pro event.

She has not played in a tournament in the 10 weeks since she returned from Europe, though — her longest break from competition since the COVID-19 shutdown in early 2020. That hiatus has made Shepherd that much more hungry to get back into action this week — especially after the Blue Devils came up just short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships last spring. Duke has everyone returning from last season’s starting lineup and added freshman Andie Smith, who cracked the team’s top five during qualifying last week.

“You realize how much you love to compete, and so I have missed playing tournaments a ton,” Shepherd said of the extended layoff. “Seeing everyone play in the US (Amateur) this summer was super tough to see, because I just love competing and love playing against the best in the world — so I’m super excited to have an opportunity to play in tournaments almost every week, which is what we’re doing. I haven’t been this excited, probably since COVID, to start tournaments back.”

On track to graduate from Duke next May with a degree in psychology, Shepherd is approaching a crossroads in her golfing career. She could conceivably stay in school for another year and take advantage of the NCAA’s pandemic-related extra year of eligibility, or she could leave next summer and begin chasing her dream of a professional career.

Shepherd acknowledges that she has already made a decision on that front, but she’s going to leave the golfing world in suspense for a little while.

“I’ll probably announce that soon,” she said, “but not yet.”

Back on campus for now, Shepherd says that she enjoyed having the bonus time at home this summer — and not just from a golfing standpoint.

“I really wasn’t expecting to get the chance to be at home at all this summer, but I ended up getting to play so many rounds at Dye’s Walk,” she said. “I felt like a kid when I was out there again. Just the evenings with my golf cart, with my dad, playing matches against my brother, that was definitely the highlight of my summer.

“Unexpected, but anytime I get the chance to be home, it just reminds me of how lucky I am and how I got where I am.”