First Coast girls golfer of the year Anika Richards had to answer a question. Was she good? Or 'Alaska-good?'

·12 min read
Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach High School is the Times-Union's First Coast player of the year in girls golf.
Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach High School is the Times-Union's First Coast player of the year in girls golf.

What's it like to grow up playing golf in Alaska?

Well, in Anika Richards' case, more wildlife than humans witnessed her first hole-in-one.

Richards, a Fernandina Beach High graduate and the 2022 Times-Union First Coast high school girls golfer of the year, was playing with a friend at the Anchorage Golf Course in July of 2017 when she was 13 years old, with her mother Shelby walking with them. Before teeing up at the long 191-yard par-3 13th hole, they noticed a mother brown bear and her cubs behind the green.

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Golf course employees in Alaska have a standard procedure for chasing bears and moose away from playing areas: they simply drive slowly towards them in golf carts and invariably they run away into the woods.

"They were just behind the green so the superintendent chased them down a path," she said. "He yelled back at us that we could play and I hit a low 3-wood onto the green."

The ball bounced onto the putting surface, hit the flagstick and dropped in. After some excited shouts and high-fives, the group looked back to the green.

The mother bear and her cubs had returned and saw the whole thing.

Another time, when playing in the state junior, Richards and her group were walking onto a green when a bull moose ran out of the woods, across the green, and into the woods on the other side.

"Our parents were freaked out but we were fine," she said. "You get used to it in Alaska. We'll tell each other, 'oh, look ... another bear.' When you grow up there you have respect for them and leave them alone. Some people I've seen in Florida should have that kind of respect for alligators and snakes."

The chances are also good to spot caribou, foxes, mountain goats and the occasional wolf.

Aside from the wildlife, there's also the sheer beauty of an Alaska summer. Richards would play at Anchorage with the Chugach Mountain Range as a backdrop, or the Birch Ridge Golf Club, with the Kenai Fjords visible to the southwest and the Kenai River close by, emptying into the Cook Inlet.

If it sounds idyllic, there's a catch for golfers: there's about a three-month window to play outdoors.

The good news is there is about 20 hours of daylight.

"I played once until 1 a.m.," she said.

"It was golf, so there was no curfew," her mother said.

But there were some years when snow would come in late August or early September, and the golf clubs were relegated to the garage.

Those were long winters indeed, especially for a young girl bitten by the golf bug.

Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach practices on the range at the Anchorage Golf Course, one of the facilities she played while growing up in Alaska.
Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach practices on the range at the Anchorage Golf Course, one of the facilities she played while growing up in Alaska.

All-around athlete

Before settling on golf, Anika Richards tried just about everything.

She was born in Kenai, Alaska, the daughter of Shelby and Bruce Richards. Her father, the director of Internal Affairs for Central Peninsula Hospital in Kenai, had moved to Alaska with his family when he was 5 years old and her mother is the daughter of Korean immigrants.

The Richards kids were encouraged to try any activity and Anika plunged herself into volleyball, soccer, basketball, track, cross country, karate and swimming.

She was such a gifted athlete that on a whim she entered a third-grade talent show and decided on a three-minute dance. Richards choreographed her own routine, complete with cartwheels and a split to end the song.

She won first place, beating out other girls who had been involved with organized dance teams for years.

"Made some of those moms very angry," Shelby Richards said.

But it was some sisterly jealousy that drew her to golf.

Katelin Richards (who is a sophomore on the Albany University golf team) won a drawing at a junior golf clinic for a set of clubs and lessons when she was 10 years old. Anika, who was 8, naturally was a bit put off.

"When you're the younger sister, you want to do anything the older sister gets to do, right?" she said.

Shelby Richards mollified her daughter by buying her a set of junior golf clubs and from that point on, it was a race between the two sisters to see who could develop faster.

Before long, they were dominating junior golf in their area.

Facing a difficult decision

"Anika stood out right away," said Tom Farris, the head pro at the Anchorage Golf Course. "Both of the sisters had natural ability, really beautiful, natural swings and they were really hooked on it from an early age. They both wanted to get better."

Bruce Richards, a pretty good player on the country club level, said he saw a look in his daughters’ eyes when they played golf that wasn’t there when they compete in other sports.

“The drive was always there,” he said. “Most people think golf is a frustrating game. They realize how difficult it is and quit. Those two kept at it and they loved it.”

But after filling a room and closest with trophies, the girls reached a turning point that Anika Richards said every junior golfer in Alaska faces when they want to get serious about the game.

"You love to play and you win a few tournaments but then you have to ask yourself a question," she said. "Are you good, or are you Alaska-good?"

Anika and Katelin got their answer. Anika said an epiphany for both was when she played in a junior team event in Hawaii and Katelin played in the North and South Junior in Pinehurst, N.C., a reward for winning the Alaska State Junior.

Surrounded by players who were able to practice and compete year-round, they realized how far behind their games were compared to "the Lower-48ers" as Alaska natives call residents of the contiguous states.

Bruce Richards had purchased a golf simulator and installed it in their garage. But even he admitted it wasn’t enough and Farris was already advising him and his wife that if the girls were serious about taking golf to the next level — top-level junior competition and potential college scholarships — they needed to be moved to a warm-weather state.

Since Shelby and Bruce Richards had already divorced when Anika was 12, it was going to be her and her daughters taking the plunge.

“It was a very hard thing for me to do,” Bruce Richards said. “Alaska is a long way from the places they were talking about living. But the girls were intent on it and I was not going to stand in the way. They were at the top of their game in Alaska but they needed better competition.”

Farris said it’s a decision many parents of promising athletes in Alaska have to make.

"There's only a three-month window to play outside and you can hit indoors and on simulators all you want,” he said. “It's just not the same thing.

Shelby then packed her daughters and headed south — to Atlanta.

Impromptu trip to Amelia Island

When Katelin Richards had played at Pinehurst, her mother heard good things about golf-course communities and facilities in the Atlanta area. In January of 2018 she flew there with her daughters and visited a few courses. Nothing stood out to them.

They went to a shopping mall on a Saturday evening to wind down and get dinner. The girls also wanted to hit up American Eagle and while they were inside, Shelby Richards struck up a conversation with a woman who was also waiting for her daughter.

Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach grew up playing golf in Alaska. In this photo, she was playing a hole with the Chugach Mountain Range in the background.
Anika Richards of Fernandina Beach grew up playing golf in Alaska. In this photo, she was playing a hole with the Chugach Mountain Range in the background.

The woman and her husband had a summer home in Amelia Island and she was extolling the virtues of that area and its golf.

When the Richards girls emerged, their mother spirited them away to the food court for something quick and dashed to the rental car.

"We got in the car at 6 p.m., drove six hours and checked into the [Omni Amelia] resort at 2 a.m.," Anika Richards said. "Absolutely crazy."

She wondered more about the decision when they woke up the next day to the coldest winter morning on the First Coast that winter.

"We had shorts and T-shirts and it was colder in Florida that day than it was in Anchorage," Anika remembers.

But they forgot about how cold it was when they saw the natural beauty of the island, the ocean and the Oak Marsh Golf Club.

They were so taken with the area that they moved to Fernandina Beach two months later.

Playing for the Pirates

Christina Steffen walked up and down the line of Yulee and Fernandina Beach Middle School students participating in a middle school golf program at the Fernandina Beach Golf Course, most of them hacking away at golf balls with unpolished swings.

Steffen, the long-time boys and girls coach at Fernandina Beach High, then saw one swing that stood out. It was poised, polished and nearly flawless from a fundamental standpoint.

It was Anika Richards, a new eighth-grader at Yulee Middle.

"I stopped and told her, 'You have a really solid swing ... I don't need to tell you a whole lot,'" Steffen said.

Truth be told, Steffen had already heard from a local realtor about the mother and two daughters from Alaska who showed up in Fernandina Beach with suitcases and golf clubs. It's a small town and word got out.

When Shelby Richards found out that Steffen had been coaching Nassau County's top high school golf programs, she made sure her daughters enrolled at Fernandina Beach.

"It was a wonderful surprise to have those two drop in my hands," Steffen said. "But they were also the kind of kids you'd want on any team."

The ability to play and practice 12 months of the year has paid off for both sisters — and for Fernandina Beach.

Since Anika Richards' freshman season in 2018 (her sister played in 2018 and 2019), the Pirates girls golf team has won two district and a region championship, finished second in the district twice and in the region three times and posted state tournament finishes of third, seventh and second.

Fernandina Beach has played in 12 post-season tournaments in the last four years. It has finished third or better 10 times.

In leading the Pirates to district and regional titles and runner-up in the state 2A tournament last season, Richards won the individual district and region championships and finished fourth in the state tournament. Fernandina won the district and regional tournaments by a combined 71 shots.

Richards led all Class 2A players in the Wanamaker rankings for nine-hole matches (an index that measures performance to par, with course difficulty factored) at 0.316 over and was second in Class 2A in the rankings for 18-hole tournaments (0.759 over).

She led all First Coast high school golfers, regardless of classification, in both 9-hole and 18-hole Wanamaker rankings. As a team, Fernandina Beach was second in Class 2A in both categories to the team that won the state championship, Plantation American Heritage.

"I was hoping for a good season and we knew we had the group to do it," Steffen said about Richards and teammates Madelyn Campbell, Sadaly Campbell, Daisy Adams and Ella Childs. "I was nervous about the bump back up to 2A but as the season progressed, it turned into a special team."

The right call

The decision to move their daughters nearly 5,000 miles from Kenai, Alaska to the First Coast is paying off more and more for Shelby and Bruce Richards.

Katelin Richards is entering her sophomore season at Albany University and tied for 13th in this season's MAAC tournament.

Katelin Richards, the older sister of Anika Richards, plays for the University of Albany (N.Y.) team and as a freshman, tied for 13th in the MAAC championship.
Katelin Richards, the older sister of Anika Richards, plays for the University of Albany (N.Y.) team and as a freshman, tied for 13th in the MAAC championship.

Anika Richards will enroll at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., which she said was as much an academic decision as for golf because of Samford's undergraduate medical programs, and its 13:1 student-to-teacher ratio.

Richards was third in her class at Fernandina with a 4.86 GPA and wants to major in biochemistry and eventually go to medical school. She will also join Ponte Vedra High graduate Sophie Membrino, who will be a junior this fall.

"I fell in love with the school and with Alabama," she said. "I like to play in the heat and I love the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trails. I loved every part of it. It feels very me."

Samford women's golf coach Joe Davidson said the comfort zone Richards feels with Samford goes both ways.

"Her sister [Katelin] and Sophie are good friends and the best recruiters are the ones who already play for you," he said. "I believe in players being a good fit and she checked every box for us. She will do very well here because of what Samford is and what we provide and what she wants to do the rest of her life beyond golf."

In the meantime, Richards will play state and national junior and amateur events this summer, honing a game that is already consistent from tee-to-green and often lights out on the putting surface.

"She's an amazing putter," Steffen said. "From the time she came to us, she had a great feel for distance control and reading greens."

Richards' current swing coach at the Omni Amelia Resort, Patrick Shelton, said the two are working to squeeze more distance off the tee but aside from that, it's a matter of fine-tuning.

Shelton also said Anika has attributes that can’t be taught.

"She's a bright, bright girl who is very mentally tough," he said. "She never gives up on a shot, a hole or a round. She's got this strong desire to want to get better. Coming from Alaska she was a bit of a late bloomer but the golf ceiling is very high. There are things that I don't think she realizes she can do."

In other words, Anika Richards isn't just Alaska-good anymore.

She's good anywhere.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: From Alaska to Florida, Fernandina's Anika Richards wins All-First Coast golf