ATHENS, Ga. – The University of North Carolina women's golf team qualified for the 2017 NCAA Women's Golf Championships after making an 11-shot comeback on Wednesday. The Tar Heels shot a 1-under par 287 to climb from tenth to sixth and claim the final spot from the Athens Regional at Rich Harvest Farms.
The Tar Heels knew coming into the day that they needed an under-par round to have a chance to advance and the day started slowly. The team was part of the first groups off No. 10 and played the back nine in even-par. But, they hadn't made a huge dent in the lead as they still trailed by eight with more teams blocking the way looking to get in as well.
As the Tar Heels came down the stretch, the scores kept getting closer, but it seemed they couldn't grasp the final kick they needed. But, on the par-5 ninth hole, the team found it.
First came junior Lexi Harkins. Harkins hit her drive a little to the left the fairway and had 215 yards left. Her second shot went into a bunker on the left side of the green, from there she said, “I saw on the scoreboard that we were close to making it (into the top six) so I really wanted to get it up and down if I could and I had a little eight footer left. I hit it firm straight in the hole, and made it.” A cheer went up from Brynn Walker, who had finished earlier with a 78, and a few Tar Heel fans in the crowd. The birdie gave Harkins a 1-under par 71 on the day to finish the tournament tied for 43rd.
Next came sophomore Kelly Whaley. She went to the tee knowing the situation, “I knew we were close and I knew it was a hole that mostly all of us can birdie, so in my mind four is a par. I only had a little bit into the hole, I had missed the green the previous two days, but my mindset was, ‘You've hit this shot so many times, you know what you're doing.' The pin was in the front so I just went for it.” Whaley's second ended up 25 feet from the hole. After a lag putt, she tapped in for birdie and a final round 73, finishing the tournament tied for 37th. As the putt went in, a louder cheer went up from Walker, Harkins, and a larger crowd of Tar Heel fans that had made their way to the 18th.
Third was junior Bryana Nguyen. Nguyen had been on fire during the day, recording five birdies, but had just bogeyed the par-3 eighth. “I wanted to finish strong and I knew nine was the place to do it,” said Nguyen. “I hit a good second shot into there, I knew I couldn't reach it because it was into the wind and kind of far, but I had a good opportunity to get it close with my third shot. I kind of had a feeling that the team was really close so I knew I had to come in somewhat clutch. Luckily, I stuck it to maybe three or four feet and heard Brynn yell and everyone cheering which was fantastic because we had so many supporters out here.” Nguyen shot a 1-under par 71 and finished the tournament tied for 19th.
Finally came senior Leslie Cloots. Cloots, Carolina's stroke average leader for the third straight season, hit, “A bomb” to open the ninth hole. From there, the Belgian had her analytical side take over, “I had 171 meters (190 yards) and I hit a seven wood because I thought the wind was in my face but then it turned. I kind of chunked it honestly, but it turned out straight and perfect.”
As Cloots came up to the green, a Tar Heel crowd consisting of all the players, family, friends, and fans had congregated on the course. By now, Carolina had passed the teams in seventh and eighth, and everyone knew an eagle or birdie would give the team a good a shot as any to claim the coveted sixth slot. While Cloots did not know the team's situation, she knew something was up.
“As I'm putting my ball back, I'm kind of shaking. I went take the marker and I just started laughing because I was like, ‘Leslie, wow! Good job! Look at you.' But, I started laughing because that's when it really matters. At this point, you learn how to deal with it. It's great because these are the moments you're playing for. I hit my putt, it was actually perfect, just a little too hard. I thought it was going in, I was going to go crazy.”
Cloots had a three footer left for her birdie. Knowing every shot counted, the Tar Heel faithful held their breath as she took her club back, and exploded as the ball disappeared into the cup. Cloots finished her day with a 72 and finished the tournament tied for 10th.
It turned out to be enough as the tournament ended with Carolina in sixth place at 22-over par, three shots clear of host Georgia. Alabama (-7), Northwestern (+7), Michigan State (+8), Baylor (+13), and Clemson (+20) took the other qualification slots.
Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest won the individual title at 10-under par. She was followed by Cheyenne Knight and Lauren Stephenson of Alabama at 5-under par.
For Mann, it was a long but rewarding day. She had faith in her team's ability to come back, “It's always possible when you have five players of this caliber, and we were thinking we could go four or five under. But, you need help from the top end to come down. One-under was our final today, we were fortunate that other teams came down. When you're in that top six position on that third day, there's a lot of pressure on you. We were in tenth. There was the pressure of wanting to go, but there wasn't the same pressure that five, six, even seven had. We felt that we could do it. But, everybody needed to play and we got some great performances out of all of them.”
For the team, the death of Carolina's former head coach Dot Gunnells was on their mind all week. Gunnells, coach from 1975 through 1993, was honored by the team as they had a pin featuring her and the last words she used to tell her players as they went to tee off, “Have fun!”
“The girls being at the funeral, they knew and loved Dot,” said Mann. “We wanted the girls to certainly have fun out there, enjoy the challenge, and I think Dot was watching over us.”
For Cloots, the funeral gave her a chance to experience the program's history. “We got to see a lot of former players, especially from the first UNC women's golf team. I got to chat a little bit with (former UNC head and assistant coach) Sally Austin who basically founded the team. They told me stories about the beginning, not having any budget, it's mindboggling how far this team has come. To be one little spark down the road and to be able to accomplish something like this, to advance and have a chance for the national championship, it's just amazing.”
This is the 16th time in program history that Carolina has advanced to the NCAA Championships and the fourth time under Mann. Last year, Carolina qualified and finished 14th. The event will take place in Sugar Grove, Illinois from May 19-24. Carolina will be one of 24 schools competing.
According to Mann, the final takeaway from today is, “They've got heart. They've got determination.” The Tar Heels proved that today.