As the Mercer women’s golf team boards the plane to Columbia, Missouri for the Johnie Imes Invitational on Sept. 28-29, the freshman-laden squad will look to improve upon its sixth place finish in its first tournament of the year, the Golfweek Program Challenge.
The Bears recorded a three-day total of 894, the lowest such total in a three-round tournament since the women recorded a score of 888 in early March of 2014 in the Hurricane Invitational.
“I learned a lot about the players in that tournament —how they managed their way around the golf course,” said first-year Head Coach Michele Drinkard, a former Ole Miss coach for eight years.
And for the program itself, many new faces reside on campus. Along with Drinkard, half of the team’s eight-woman roster are freshmen. Three—Mary Janiga, Payton Schanen, and Terese Romeo—traveled to the team’s first tournament.
But they weren’t simply along for the ride. Janiga led the team with scores of 75, 70, and 72 for a three-day total of 217. Her four-over par score was good enough for a T-7 finish.
“What helped me play well in the first tournament was just being relaxed and not thinking so much about hitting perfect shots,” Janiga said. “So, I think I’m just gonna have the same attitude [for the second tournament].”
Schanen also had “a really good tournament,” according to Drinkard, as she finished T-16 with a 221 total. Sophomore Jaelyn Tindal finished third on the team with a T-30 after a 227 total. Junior Marin Hanna finished two strokes behind Tindal en route to a T-33. Romeo struggled on day three with an 85, and she finished T-61 on a 237 total.
“I think it pushes a team when the younger players really push the players in front of them,” Drinkard said. “Then, they all work hard. So, it’s really nice to see the young players step right in and play well.”
And the young players will need to play well again for the Bears to see similar success in Missouri. The same three freshmen will travel to Columbia as Mercer competes against Coastal Carolina (ranked 46th), Middle Tennessee State (54), Kansas State (64), and South Florida (67) among others; the only lineup change will be putting in sophomore Hannah Mae Deems in place of Tindal.
Drinkard described The Club of Hawthorne—the course on which the girls will play—as a “great piece of land” which features rolling hills throughout. She said the course will play longer because of the undulations, but it shouldn’t make a big difference for the girls.
“I don’t think it will weigh on them one way or the other,” Drinkard said. “It’s just when you play a flatter golf course, you kind of get a true roll. When you play a rolling golf course, you have to adjust for the uphills and the downhills.”
But, calling the girls “experienced,” Drinkard said she expects them to handle the slopes. A bigger adjustment for the Bears may be on the greens. The club features bent grass greens, which will be a transition for some of the players.
“I struggle with bent greens because I’ve grown up on Bermuda, so it’s hard for me to read the greens,” Janiga said. “But I’m just gonna spend a bunch of time practicing putting.”
Golf courses in the South—because of the heat—often have Bermuda greens, a strand of grass which is more prone to survive in the heat of the summer. Reading greens on bent and Bermuda differ as the “grain” in the latter causes the ball to move one direction; the grass pulls it one direction based on how it grows. The former relies more on the green’s slope.
While the team practices at Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, a course with bent grass, all of the starters grew up in the South. Drinkard said it will be a slight transition.
“The biggest adjustment they’re going to have is to not try to read any grain into it and just go with what they say, or rather, what they feel in their feet,” Drinkard said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to adapt pretty quickly.”
Along with mastering the bent greens, Drinkard said the team will need to improve on its short game and pay attention to the little details of the game in order to make smarter club selections.
And with the younger players’ play in the first tournament, Drinkard is confident about the team’s future. But she said the team will not get ahead of itself.
“We need to keep in check our expectations and focus in on the process and take one day at a time,” Drinkard said. “All those things you say about in sports . . . one shot at a time, one day at a time. Take in the positives and let go of the negatives and stay focused.”