By Julie Williams
Bottled-water showers usually are reserved for the postseason, but South Carolina made an exception Tuesday. Considering the competition, a season-opening victory on a steamy Florida day was cause for the Gamecocks to collect every bottle within sight of the 18th green.
The Gamecocks poured them on their senior, Frenchwoman Justine Dreher, as she closed out the ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M with a one-shot victory. Then they poured them on head coach Kalen Harris, whose leadership for the past eight years is a big reason South Carolina left Reunion with a trophy.
For the first time all day, South Carolina had breathing room. A final-round 6-under 282 helped the Gamecocks to a 10-under total and a seven-shot victory over Arizona. Oklahoma State was another shot back at 2 under, and Stanford was fourth at even par for 54 holes.
“It was a lot closer than it came out to be in the end,” Harris said.
In college golf, it’s a luxury not to know which score will be thrown out, and Harris had it on Tuesday. She followed the scoreboard closely, but delivered only this line to her team: “You can’t make enough birdies.”
Freshman Nanna Madsen was 1 over after 12, and saw Harris at that green. Madsen asked if 1 or 2 under for the day would be good enough.
“Yeah, just do that,” Harris told her. True to her word, Madsen delivered a 2-under 70.
As a team, South Carolina made nine birdies on the back nine. By the time Madsen, in the No. 2 spot, reached the 18th, her teammates already were plotting their celebration.
The excitement is understandable, and well-earned, because this season already looks different for the Gamecocks. This is the point to which Harris has been building, and to have it come so early in the fall can shape the way the rest of the year unfolds. South Carolina finished last season ranked No. 8 by Golfweek and was preseason No. 10 to start the fall. A South Carolina team has never been ranked No. 1, and it’s the first time since 1980 a Gamecock women’s golf team has won its first tournament of the season.
“They know they’re a legitimate team,” Harris said. Results are starting to back that up.
In some ways, last season was a breakout one for South Carolina. There were two team titles – the first regular-season victories in Harris’ tenure even though the Gamecocks won NCAA regional crowns in 2010 and ’12. The most head-turning week came at the Ping/Arizona State Invitational, where South Carolina finished atop a Pac-12-heavy field that also included eventual national champion Duke.
“It takes awhile for the tradition to be built,” Harris said, but South Carolina still has its share, in an extended sort of way.
Director of Golf Puggy Blackmon is Harris’ acting assistant coach, and brings three decades of college-golf experience to the program. Blackmon is an experienced swing coach, and as Harris said, “awesome from the development side.” He also brings a knowledge and a history to the game that balances Harris’ fresh take.
Harris played college golf at Duke, and was on head coach Dan Brooks’ 1999 national-title team before spending two seasons as his assistant coach. Harris knew how to win before she ever arrived at South Carolina.
“He’s taught me a lot about how to manage players and how to manage personalities,” Harris said of playing for Brooks.
It makes sense that South Carolina’s biggest strength is in its flexibility. There are many pieces to this roster, and they fit together in many different ways. South Carolina graduated two players from its Ping/ASU-winning team last spring, left one at home this week with an injury, but counted on more from Dreher.
Harris also brought in arguably the top freshman in the nation in Nanna Madsen, a Denmark National Team member who is No. 4 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Madsen was T-9 at Reunion.
“It’s really nice to have five girls who are playing really well right now,” said junior Mary Fran Hillow, who contributed three consecutive rounds of even-par 72 to finish T-14.
Dreher, the lone senior on this squad, turned a first-round co-lead into her first college victory. Dreher finished the tournament at 9 under, and fought nerves through her final-round 71.
Dreher has dropped more than two strokes from her scoring average since freshman year, and has risen from No. 131 in the Golfweek rankings. Her leadership will be a big part of South Carolina’s season.
Early in the week, Dreher called her team an underdog because of its lack of history. An ANNIKA title, and head-to-head victories over programs who win national titles year in and year out, go a long way toward establishing South Carolina’s place in the game.
“They’ve been really top programs for such a long time so it was really nice to see that we can beat them,” Dreher said. “Hard work pays off.”
There’s no lack of it at South Carolina.