Samantha Wagner's first professional start at the U.S. Women's Open has all the right feels

After two years at the University of Florida, Samantha Wagner is ready to take her game to the professional circuit. Courtesy Wagner family.

After two years at the University of Florida, Samantha Wagner is ready to take her game to the professional circuit. Courtesy Wagner family.

Samantha Wagner will be the best young local this week at the U.S. Women’s Open -- with an asterisk. Wagner’s roots are in the Northeast -- not far from this week’s Bedminster, N.J., setting -- but her home remains in Orlando, Fla. Wagner and her family left the Northeast climate in 2008 in large part because of Wagner’s desire to pursue golf. Now that she’s back this week to make her first start as a professional, Wagner, 20, feels a definite advantage in the familiar setting. She’s already counting on a cheering contingent to show up from Northampton, her old country club.

“I think the course itself fits my game pretty well because I grew up on northern courses,” Wagner said. “It’s kind of easy to know how to adapt to that.”

Wagner has lived over half her life in Florida, having moved to Orlando when she was 11 years old. But much of her childhood was spent in Easton, Pa., just across the New Jersey border from Trump National Golf Club. It feels right that this is the jumping-off point for a long-coming professional career, which is important because feels can mean everything in this game.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to mistake Wagner’s early-June decision to turn pro for a rash response to winning her Women’s Open qualifier. In reality, it was something she had verbalized well before teeing it up that day. By the time she had posted a first-round 68 on June 6 and was preparing for the afternoon round, mom Amy already felt comfortable enough with how the day was going to break from her predictable mid-round comments.

“I’ve always had normal things I say to her in a golf round that she can kind of depend on to hear,” Amy explained. “I don’t know what came over me between rounds. I said, ‘Am I allowed to watch your last amateur round of golf?’”

Samantha responded well to that. She birdied two of her final three holes to win the qualifier, then spent a night sleeping on the idea of turning pro just to be certain. She woke her mother up at 5 a.m. the next morning to talk and got an easy green light: “You got it, baby. Go do it.”

When Samantha did put the word out that day after getting into the Women’s Open, Amy noticed it was met with considerable support. The most common sentiment from friends in the golf community was, “Finally.” When the layers are peeled back from the whole process, it’s a sensible answer.

The months leading up to Samantha’s decision to turn professional were an exercise in keeping the end goal in mind. She committed to play college golf for the University of Florida at age 15 in 2012, telling then-head coach Jan Dowling up front that she could definitely commit two years before reevaluating where she was in her game. Playing LPGA Q-School at the end of her sophomore year was always on the table.

Samantha played every tournament as a freshman under head coach Emily Glaser. She came back in the fall of 2016 and made only two starts. She steeled herself, and made a run at getting back in the lineup while playing as an individual in October at the Pat Bradley Invitational. She ended up posting 14-under 202 to win the event. Samantha was on the winning Suntrust Gator Invite squad in the fall, but didn’t play again in the regular season as Florida won three more times then tied for first at an NCAA Regional. She took it in stride, knowing that if the Gators got on a tear, the lineup would remain the same -- she had been on that recurring lineup as a freshman.

So Samantha turned it into a positive, channeling her energy into some small professional events in Orlando.

“I knew I was playing the best I have in a very long time,” she said. “I had won a college tournament at the end of the season in October...I knew I was going to Q-School this fall.”

College golf tied itself in a neat bow when Samantha got a last-minute call in May to fly to Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., and fill in for a sick teammate at the NCAA Championship. She came in cold and shot a 92, then came back with 75 to help the Gators get into match play. Oddly enough, she had had a premonition that something funny like that might happen to end the year.

When it came time to make the decision to leave the Gator team after the Women’s Open qualifier, Samantha made the difficult call to Glaser to make sure she got the news first-hand. She left on a family vacation to France two days later, but visited with her coach in person when she got home.

Samantha couldn’t be more prepared for what’s to come next. Despite having only two years on the Florida campus under her belt, she only has six classes and an internship left to complete a degree in family, youth and community sciences. That’s a result of taking eight classes at a community college while in high school, plus taking 15 credits each semester and three classes each summer.

As Samantha transitions to professional life, so does the rest of her family. On the way to Bedminster, the Wagners stopped in Washington D.C., so older brother C.J. could move put down roots. After he caddies for Samantha at the Women’s Open, he’ll return to begin a job as a Business Tech Analyst at Deloitte Consulting. Amy is also a recent graduate, having just finished a masters degree in mental health counseling -- at track very similar to Samantha’s.

Meanwhile, Samantha has two more professional starts lined up after the Women’s Open: the Symetra Tour’s Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic and the Florida Women’s Open. The first round of LPGA Q-School begins at the end of August.

Two years ago about this time, as Samantha was getting ready to play in her first U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club, Amy remembers her daughter being downright giddy about all the perks and details that come with a spot in the nation’s championship. Since then, there have been a lot of defining moments. Samantha has always been in tune with her game and purposeful about her process.

“She’s a daredevil, a fearless player,” Amy said. “We never want that to change because that’s what makes her, her. She has grown in her ability to know when to use that.”

Now seems like one of those times.