ATLANTA, GEORGIA | The college golf season, which is broken into two parts (a curiosity in school sports that makes it confusing to follow at times, especially when a player or two turn pro between semesters), comes to a semi-close this week with the last events before the holiday break taking place hither and yon.
Defending NCAA men’s champions Stanford hosted a match-play event at Cypress Point earlier this week. Georgia Tech won that one, defeating Duke in the final. Today through Sunday, Atlantis Resort and Tourism Bahamas is hosting the White Sands Invitational, the second of back-to-back women’s and men’s events on the Ocean Club Golf Course on Paradise Island. The University of Texas ran away with the women’s event in the Caribbean. Houston, Wake Forest, Arkansas and Southern Methodist University highlight the men’s tournament this weekend.
Then you had events like the UNC Greensboro/Grandover Collegiate, where the host team beat Rutgers and Appalachian State; the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown, a women’s event at Boulder Creek Golf Club, again won by the host team (UNLV) over San Francisco; and a top-flight Division II women’s event at Country Club of Orlando hosted by Rollins College. Galleries for these events – even the ones at Cypress Point and Paradise Island – usually consist of parents and significant others, the latter showing up only to prove their undying love. Occasionally club members venture out, especially if they are an alumnus of one of the competing schools. Other than that, it’s players, coaches and a few hardy volunteers. And that is a crying shame. Because some of the best and most emotional highlights in golf, whether it’s hitting shots and making putts under pressure, encouraging a teammate down the stretch, or interacting with a coach during a critical situation, occur in the college ranks.
The best example is the East Lake Cup, the event created by Golf Channel featuring the final four men’s and women’s teams from the previous year’s NCAA Championships. In its fifth year, the event has given a platform to some notable stars. Matthew Wolff put his swing on display for the cameras at East Lake Golf Club long before gracing the cover of any golf magazine, and Albane Valenzuela flashed her infectious smile for the TV cameras in Georgia before anyone outside avid followers of the American Junior Golf Association knew her name.
But it’s rarely the shots, or even the individual players, that draw the wide-eyed affection of the fans who venture out to East Lake. It’s the interactions, the camaraderie and obvious love the young men and women have for their teammates, their schools and their coaches; the bonds built through college sports, connections these players will keep for the rest of their lives regardless of their wins and losses. This year’s East Lake Cup was won by Texas on the men’s side and Wake Forest on the women’s. But that outcome doesn’t matter and will likely be forgotten by spring. The stories are far more important than that.
“Sure, when you’re playing you’re thinking of golf in the moment, but when you finish you realize that you’re out here for something bigger. You win for the whole team and everyone who has supported you along the way. … ” – Emilia Migliaccio
Both teams from Wake Forest (the men were invited to take Stanford’s place, since the Cardinal couldn’t host an event on the West Coast and be on the East Coast at the same time) wore pink to honor former Demon Deacons women’s coach Dianne Dailey, who is battling breast cancer and who surprised everyone by showing up at East Lake to watch.
“Coach Dailey started recruiting me when I was a freshman in high school and I went to a Wake golf camp when I was 12,” said Wake Forest junior Emilia Migliaccio of Cary, N.C. “So I’ve had really good memories of Coach Dailey since I was a little girl. To hear that she got breast cancer, we immediately wanted to do something for her. And what a great way for us to wear pink with the guys and all the spectators. It was really special to honor her in that way. Then, we kept it up by putting pink dots on our balls in honor of her the rest of the week.
“Sure, when you’re playing you’re thinking of golf in the moment, but when you finish you realize that you’re out here for something bigger,” Migliaccio said. “You win for the whole team and everyone who has supported you along the way, like Coach Dailey. And it’s not just the one win, it’s the journey and everything that led up to that moment. You win for the team, the coaches, your family and everyone who has been there to support you.
“Coach Dailey helped me a lot my freshman year. She always tried to keep me positive because I’ve always been hard on myself. But that’s what they do. Coaches keep you disciplined and positive and thinking about the right things. It’s like another parent.”
The women honored Dailey but rallied around their current coach, Kim Lewellen, who had to fight back tears as she accepted the East Lake Cup trophy and talked about the great work the East Lake Foundation does in building lives in the urban Atlanta community.
Then there was Cole Hammer, the No. 3 ranked amateur in the world, who couldn’t stop raving about his coach at the University of Texas, John Fields.
“I’ve known Coach Fields since I was 13 years old,” Hammer said. “I committed in the eighth grade and did that because I’ve always wanted to play at Texas and I’d heard so much from past players about Coach Fields and how he runs his program. For the last five or six years now, he’s always been there for me. He’s a guy that I can talk to if I’m struggling with something. The same goes for every guy on the team. He’s not out there helping me with my swing every day, it’s not that kind of relationship. He helps me with the mental side. That’s one of his strongest assets. It’s 100 percent like having a second father out there. When I first met him I was a little intimidated by him. I was this young kid and he was coach at one of the greatest golf programs in history. Now I’m totally relaxed around him. He just makes me feel at home.”
Scott Limbaugh, head coach for Vanderbilt’s men’s program, underscored the family atmosphere that prevails in his program.
“We always just talk about what are the choices and the lifestyle and competitive characteristics, how do I contribute to everybody,” he said. “Yes, golf is an individual sport but we are pretty committed at Vanderbilt to making it about us, about each other. That means helping each other out, having each other’s backs, playing for each other. It’s the last time you get to do this in your life. When you take that next step, that circle gets really small. Everyone is pulling against you at that next stage. So we love to have that little brotherhood of guys that care about you.
“My wife and I, we talk about this being an extension of our family,” Limbaugh said. “We talk to our kids about being away from home 80 t0 100 nights a year, but we are still with our family.”
That’s what you see at the East Lake Cup. That’s what you find if you venture out to the college golf tournament down the road or at the club next door. You don’t have to be an alum. You don’t have to have a rooting interest. All you have to do is watch, pay attention, and be moved.
The Wake Forest women’s squad hoists the 2019 East Lake Cup. Photo: Courtesy of Wake Forest University Athletics
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