May 19, 2009
OWINGS MILLS, Md. - The Tennessee women's golf team's 2008-09 campaign has been a tale of two completely different seasons. In the fall of 2008, the Lady Vols couldn't crack the top-50 in the Golfstat rankings and had only one top-ten tournament finish, an eighth-place showing at the Mercedes-Benz Women's Collegiate Championships.The Lady Vols turned their season around this spring, finishing no worse than eighth in six tournaments, and qualifying for their fifth NCAA Championships in six years.
After battling a shoulder injury at the end of the 2007-08 season, and missing this past fall, it's no coincidence senior Nicole Smith's return this spring has coincided with UT's rapid improvement.
One of the best players ever to swing a club at UT, Smith will wrap up her career in the Orange and White beginning today and ending Friday at the 2009 NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Caves Valley Golf Club.
"Nicole has been such an exciting player to have on my team," Lady Vol head coach Judi Pavon said. "She is one of the best ball strikers I have ever seen. I can guarantee some of the best shots I will ever see from a female player have come from Nicole."
UT's lone senior this season, Smith returned in late February and in her second tournament back, the UCF Challenge, Smith was vying for medalist honors. She carded a 68 and a 70 during the first two rounds of the Central Florida tournament in March, and despite ending the tournament with a 77, Smith still led the Lady Vols at the tournament and tied for 14th.
"I think (Nicole's performance) gave the rest of the team some added confidence - that Nicole was going to be back and she was going to be playing well," Pavon said of the tournament. "If we had to count our fourth score or our fifth score every day this spring instead of her score, it would make a very big difference."
In five events this spring, Smith has three top-20 finishes and is second on the team with a 74.53 stroke average.
She has also been a three-time All-SEC Second Team selection and was recognized as an honorable mention All-America selection by both the NGCA and Golfweek in 2006-07, the season she snagged individual medalist honors at the Fall Preview tournament with a 5-under-par 211. She ranks fourth in the Big Orange record books in career stroke average (74.82) and rounds of par or under (29), and has nine top-10 finishes in her career.
This is her third NCAA Championships, as she tied for 43rd at the national championships in 2006, and placed in a tie for 69th in 2007. The Lady Vols missed last season's NCAA Championships after a 16th-place finish at the 2008 NCAA East Regional.
The disappointing 2008 finish was something Smith has not forgot, and she made it her goal at the beginning of the season to cap her career, with her team, in Maryland.
"Last year ended rough and it was rough to miss the fall," Smith said. "It was a lot of work coming back, but I can say right now that I got exactly what I was hoping for. Last year was a huge blow, and so this year I wanted to finish my senior year at Nationals. It's been an amazing experience. I couldn't ask for a better finish and a better team to be finishing with. In the end I feel blessed to be here with these four girls."
And it hasn't been just about golf at Tennessee for Smith. A star on the academic side as well, she is a two-time member of the NGCA Academic All-America team and has been selected to the SEC honor roll every year. She will graduate after the fall 2009 semester, as one of the most decorated golfers in Lady Vol history on and off the course.
Smith plans to continue her golf career, and will participate in the U.S. Women's Open qualifying tournament in California next week. She will always associate herself with the Lady Vols, though, and hopes to end her career on a high note.
"I just really want to go out here and enjoy my last tournament," she said. "I want to play my best and encourage my teammates to play good too. Hopefully something great can happen. I'm excited and I'm sad because this is my last tournament, but I know once a Lady Vol always a Lady Vol."
One of the best stories to come out of the Lady Vols' 2008-09 season has been the improvement of Brown.
The Austin, Texas native came into her third year with the Big Orange with a 80.8 career stroke average and career-low round of 74. This season she is third on the Lady Vols with a 75.79 stroke average (compared to a 80.2 average in 2007-08), and has shot a 74 or lower 11 times.
She tied for sixth at the SEC Championship, and was t23rd at the NCAA East Regional. In 2008, she tied for 46th at the SEC tournament and finished t102nd at the East Regional.
"I don't think I've ever seen somebody improve by that much from one season to another, especially somebody that was already a good player," Pavon said. "Maybe you can take somebody that walks on and they shoot an 85, and you can get them to shoot an 81, but to get from 80 to 75 is a big jump, and I have not seen that. I think if Ginny was the same player this year that she was last year then we wouldn't be talking about it right now. She's been a score that counts every day.
After the end of the 2007-08 season, Brown dedicated herself to improving over the summer. She worked with local instructor Randy Wylie made some changes to her putting. She now uses a belly putter and a claw grip.
"I think I always thought I was capable of playing like I am now - I just wasn't doing it," Brown said. "Even when I wasn't playing as good my first two years, I was still working hard and I was still striking the ball good. It's just all coming together now. I changed some stuff in my golf game - mainly my putting. I've learned a lot about my short game from my coaches. This year I was put into a position where I had to play well."
And that's exactly what she has done - especially in her last two tournaments. At the SEC Championship and the NCAA East Regional, Brown is averaging an impressive 72.83.
MANSSON IN A CLASS ALL HER OWN
The return of Smith and the improvement of Brown have been key to the Lady Vols' march to the NCAA Championship this season, but the main factor behind Tennessee's success could be the play of Mansson.
Only a freshman, Mansson has six top-15 finishes and has been UT's top finisher at six tournaments this season. Her 73.45 stroke average leads the team and is significantly below the Tennessee freshman record of 74.15 set by Violeta Retamoza in 2002-03.
A native of Stockholm, Sweden, Mansson tied for third at the NCAA East Regional and earned All-SEC Second Team in her rookie campaign.
"She is a very determined girl," Pavon said. "She was willing to leave home so she's not going to waste this opportunity. Nathalie is a great competitor. Her game is really solid and it can get better."
TEE TIMES MOVED BACK
The threat of morning frost on the course in chilly Owings Mills, Md., moved tee times back by a half-hour for today and Wednesday. The Lady Vols will begin the first round at 12:30 p.m. today, at start the second round at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.