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Women's Golf: The Joy of Unfinished Business

Women's Golf: The Joy of Unfinished Business

For members of the Anderson University Women’s Golf Team, last season didn’t end how they’d hoped. yet no matter what happens this spring, the encore will feel much differently.

Jessica Rathbone was in tears.

Written by Andrew J. Beckner

Part of it was exhaustion.

College golf is a year-round sport, and Rathbone, a senior for the Anderson University women’s team, had been practicing or playing for 20 hours a week since August. That’s 800 hours. To put that into context: if it takes 120 credit hours to get a bachelor’s degree, Rathbone should have a Ph.D. in amateur golf after only one season.

Part of it was the weight of expectation.

Rathbone was part of a team that had risen as high as No. 3 in the country just a month earlier. It was a team that had won two consecutive South Atlantic Conference Championships, a team with multiple All-Americans, a team that, fair or not, had come into the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf National Championship tournament with championship-or-bust expectations.

And part of it, truth be told, was that she felt responsible for letting her team down.

She wasn’t alone. Every member of the team felt that way then. They feel that way now. College golf may be a team sport, but success is measured by individual performance. One missed fairway, one shot into a bunker, or one errant putt is evidence of the sport’s cruelty. Mark Twain probably never said “golf is a good walk spoiled,” but it certainly feels true. The Anderson University Women’s Golf Team’s 10th-place finish is a testament to it.

“It was just a bad round and it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Head Women’s Golf Coach Denton Moore. “The best golfers in the world play bad rounds all the time. Ours just came at the wrong time.”

Hence, Jessica Rathbone’s tears last May, with a bright sun shining through pillowy clouds over Fox Run in Eureka, Missouri. “As I walked off the green, I was sobbing. We gave it all we had, but something was missing.”

Since then, Rathbone and her teammates have been on a mission to find it.

Coach Moore has his own theories. It wasn’t nerves, he contends. “Most of (last year’s) team went to the final four the year before,” he said, describing how the National Championship is determined. (After three rounds of play, the top eight teams advance to match play to determine the winner.) In other words, they all knew what to expect.

“Going into the tournament, we felt really good about it,” said Kennedy McGaha. Her confidence is not misplaced; McGaha knows what it takes to be successful. Before coming to AU, she was a five-time All-State golfer and owns the Belton-Honea Path High School 18-hole record (a 68, if you’re wondering.) Her first year in college, she was the South Atlantic Conference Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-American. Heading into last year’s NCAA Championship, she was First-Team All-SAC and had finished in the top three of five tournaments.

That’s a lot of golf. Coach Moore said it caught up to the team at the end.

“I don’t think people understand how long the season is, what a grind it is. I just think we ran out of gas,” he said. “People don’t realize what these girls sacrifice, from a student-athlete perspective. They sacrifice to get better at golf, to try to win a championship. They don’t have the same luxury of time that other students have. They are too busy putting in the work. (But) you have to have players who are willing to do that to have a championship team.”

Rathbone and McGaha are willing—and so is Kennedy Gooding, another player on last year’s team who has returned to settle some unfinished business. “Everybody wants to win,” she said. “We’re going to be successful if we’re all putting in the 100% effort that is required. It’s an individual sport, but you can’t have an individual mindset. We have to motivate each other if we’re going to win (this year’s championship.)”

The team is already well on its way toward that goal.

The Trojans came into the fall season ranked No. 7 in the country and have exceeded expectations. They played five tournaments, winning three and placing second in the other two. McGaha was the SAC Golfer of the Week twice. Gooding and sophomore Aly Francis earned All-Tournament Honors while helping the Trojans win the Patsy Rendleman Invitational in Salisbury, North Carolina last October. Rathbone, an All-American last year, had two top-10 finishes. And, in the NCAA South Regional Tournament Preview—against squads the Trojans will face again in this spring’s Regional—Coach Moore’s team tied for second. But he doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead. Nor does he want to place any limits on what success looks like.

“This team has gotten to a level now that it feels like we’re expected to be in the National Championship. That’s so unfair,” Coach Moore said. “To get back to the National Championship, that’s what most people would consider a success. I don’t really look at it that way. I’m proud of them regardless of what happens.

“The real measure of success is that we’re going to have students graduate, go out into the world as great representatives of Anderson University. That’s where the success boils down to. But as long as we go out there, work hard, execute, have fun and stay positive, I’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

McGaha is hoping the chips go where they’re supposed to go: in the pin. And that requires a certain level of commitment, she said.

“To get something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do things you’ve never done.”

What the Trojans have never had is waiting for them at the Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge in Winter Garden, Florida. It’s there, starting May 21, that the NCAA Division II Championship will be determined.

“We’ve been great about keeping each other accountable,” McGaha said. “We’re working longer than we ever had before. We’re pushing each other.”

But great talent, hard work and a healthy team culture— all of which the Trojans have—only gets you so far. Perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle, then, is motivation. The motivation to hoist the trophy is part of it, sure. But Gooding said motivation comes, in part, from not wanting her coaches and teammates to feel the way they felt on that sunny day last year in Missouri. She wants to do her part to spare them from it.

That’s why Gooding asks herself one question over and over and over again: “Remember how you felt?” It’s painful, that memory, that feeling. Yet…

“I want to remember it,” she said.

So does Jessica Rathbone, the lone senior on this year’s team. “I felt so sad, and (last season) felt so unfinished,” she said. “We are one of the best teams in the country, and this is my last chance.”

It’s a chance she is embracing wholeheartedly, regardless of what comes after. Even if it means tears. After all, tears don’t just come from sorrow or pain. They come from experiencing a kind of success most people fail to truly understand.

“Success is being with your team and knowing we did everything we could, regardless of the results,” she said. “So, I define success as walking off the green on my last hole and I’m crying because I’ve done everything I could.”

No matter what, this time they will be tears of joy.

Written by Andrew J. Beckner