This article, written by Kevin Casey, was originally published by Golfweek.com.
Kalen Anderson liked what she saw Saturday.
The South Carolina head coach felt her team played relaxed in the practice round ahead of the ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M.
Well, not every player that is.
Katelyn Dambaugh in fact couldn’t get her nerves under control.
“Mentally I was panicking,” Dambaugh said. “I wasn’t hitting it that great in the practice round and that’s when it started coming back.”
“It” being Dambaugh’s tendency, at times, to put too much pressure on herself.
So Dambaugh and Anderson talked it out, with the coach telling her pupil the basics: Enjoy your time out there and don’t worry about others’ expectations.
“She said just be free,” Dambaugh said. “All I expect you to do is have fun, play hard and have a good attitude.”
Complicated? No. Effective? Yes.
Dambaugh opened her senior season with the Gamecocks with a school record, as she fired an 8-under 64 at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course to open up a two-shot lead at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate. Her early fireworks – that 64 is the lowest individual round in school history – played a big part in pushing South Carolina to a four-shot lead (at 14 under) after Day One.
In any college tournament a four-shot lead, even just 18 of 54 holes in, is nothing to sniff at. But this is also the ANNIKA Intercollegiate, a 12-team gathering of many of the best in the country. (Of the top 14 in the rankings at the end of 2015-16, 10 are here at Reunion Resort in Kissimmee, Fla.)
The Gamecocks, Golfweek‘s preseason No. 16, entered 2016-17 coming off a strong season in which they made match play at the NCAA Championship, falling to Stanford in the quarterfinals.
But South Carolina did way more than coast off good talent to open its season with a lead.
In preparation for a layout that offered plenty of scoreable par 5s, coaches emphasized the wedge game.
And, what do you know, South Carolina played those holes Sunday in 9 under, the best mark in the field.
Anderson also figured the team might see a course generous in giving out red numbers. After all, the USC Trojans won this event at 36 under last year.
So she strategized for that prior to the team’s travel.
“A couple of times (in practice rounds back home), we played from the front tees, trying to make a lot of birdies,” Anderson said.
Good call. On a windless Sunday, 13 players shot in the 60s and 27 broke par at the Watson Course.
How’d it go for the Gamecocks?
Three South Carolina players (Dambaugh, 64; Ainhoa Olarra, 69; Anita Uwadia, 69) broke 70 and the worst score was 73. Looks like it worked.
As did Dambaugh calming down. She actually bogeyed her first hole (No. 10) but bounced right back with a birdie at the next and earned three more to go out in 33.
She then came to the drivable 267-yard par-4 second and ripped a drive some 15 feet from the hole. But she couldn’t figure out where to hit the potentially momentous eagle putt.
“I hit it dead straight, because I didn’t know where it was going,” Dambaugh said. “I just aimed it at the hole.”
Well, uhh… it worked, as the stroke dropped to push her to 5 under. She would birdie the fifth and then close with back-to-back birdies to reach 8 under. She finds herself two ahead of UCLA’s Lilia Vu and Arizona State’s Linnea Strom after one round.
South Carolina’s 14-under 274 was also a school-record score. The closest pursuers are Georgia (10 under), USC (9 under) and UCLA (9 under).
Everything turned out quite nicely. So what was Dambaugh stressing out about in the first place?
Well, the left-hander does have plenty on her plate. Dambaugh had a breakout junior campaign in 2015-16 in which she captured her first college win, but also likely emerged as the second-best player in women’s college golf. This season, she’s expected to not drop off, and maybe even build, from that lofty perch.
That understandably builds up some nerves.
“She’s a top player in the country and there’s a lot of expectations on her,” Anderson said. “That’s kind of a new place for anybody to be in and deal with those expectations put on you.”
Dambaugh is also a player who already battles to avoid letting expectations tie her down anyway. So you can see where this issue might arise.
But Anderson’s talk resonated and Dambaugh had a trick of her own up her sleeve: finance homework.
Yes, finance homework.
Not the most obvious relaxer, but Dambaugh says she doesn’t “know anything about finance” and that’s a good thing when it comes to her golf.
“It makes me actually think and try on something else,” Dambaugh said. “My brain is completely off the golf course.”
It’s one day, but Dambaugh, who represented team USA last week at the Women’s World Team Amateur Championship, appears she has the tools to deal with the pressure of remaining top-tier, and she’s raising her team up with her.
But not everything’s perfect.
Hey Katelyn, that finance course you find so hard… what’s the name of it?
“I don’t even know,” Dambaugh laughed. “That’s kind of bad, isn’t it?”
Well, maybe. But Dambaugh’s play on the course: exactly the opposite.