Perhaps it was those delicious sliders that were grilled up at Finley Golf Course this past weekend.
Or it could have been the countless hours it took for volunteers to clean up the debris that lined the greens after Hurricane Michael rolled through, just days before the start of the tournament, that made the event so memorable.
Or maybe it was simply the tradition, the 43 years of golf being played at the annual Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational, that warmed the heart of Jan Mann.
“Behind the scenes we couldn’t have asked for anything nicer,” said Mann, the ninth-year head coach of the North Carolina women’s golf team. Mann was beaming, both relieved and proud from the success of another Tar Heel Invitational. “Between the sliders and the gifts for the kids and the coaches dinner, it’s an amazing event.”
This year's Ruth’s Chris sponsored event held a hurricane relief drive in the wake of Hurricane Florence, collecting donations throughout the tournament. Ironically, the team wondered if they would even play this weekend due to storms.
“Thursday night we had that terrible storm that knocked trees down and debris everywhere,” Mann said.
Piece by piece, volunteers rushed to clean up the field in time for Friday’s noon shotgun start.
“They did a tremendous job ... the teams couldn’t believe the condition of the course, how good it was,” Mann said.
Despite the blue skies and pristine course for Friday’s first round of the invitational, North Carolina finished the day in 10th place out of the 18 teams participating.
The team was led by senior Kelly Whaley, who shot an even-par 72 on the day, but it lacked consistency. Both Mariana Ocano and Brynn Walker fell to 6-over-par, and UNC left round one with a team score of 9-over-297.
Duke established its control of the tournament after leading round one with an impressive team score of 17-under-par. The Blue Devils were led by Jaravee Boonchant, who finished 6-under-par on the day.
First-year Jennifer Zhou remained even-keeled this season and led the Tar Heels on the windy Saturday, shooting 1-under-par 71. Despite Zhou’s efforts, UNC came up short and left day two with a team score of 10-over-296. The Tar Heels remained in 10th place in a tie with Michigan State.
The third and final round was led again by Whaley with an even-par day. She finished her last Ruth's Chris Tar Heel Invitational 2-over-par, tied for 18th.
“I’m happy I finished it off well,” Whaley said. “I’m ready to graduate, but at the same time, it’s sad because I’ll miss the course and the team so much.”
Despite having six bogeys in the first nine holes in the final round, Zhou finished in 17th place with 1-over-par.
“I said ‘I don’t care about the score anymore, I’m just gonna be myself,’” Zhou said of her comeback. “But I want to be more careful about each shot. I want to think more.”
With the help of Whaley, Nicole Lu, Ocano and Walker, the team finished as tied in seventh place and 20-over-par for the weekend. Duke was unwavering from the start, winning the tournament at 14-under for its fifth victory in the last six years.
“We came close to playing really well,” Mann said. “We’ve got to get a little more consistent with some of our players.”
Mann said Walker, who finished 8-over-par this tournament, will overcome her struggles she had during the tournament.
“She’s one of our top players," Mann said. "It hurt her not to be able to play well at her home event, but she’ll come through it and be fine.”
Earlier this season, the women’s golf team finished ninth in the Cougar Classic and seventh in the Mason Rudolph Championship. Whaley has continued to make her mark on UNC this season after shooting the two lowest tournament scores in the school’s history last year.
She’s on track to have another great season.
“The expectations more so come from myself,” Whaley said. “There’s pressure from myself to do certain accomplishments and certain things because it’s my last chance.”
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