Heading into her senior year at North Carolina, women’s golfer Kayla Smith got a confidence boost.
After placing at a qualifying tournament over the summer, Smith got the opportunity to play in her first amateur level competition, the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, Wash.
Some of the best female golfers in the world participated in 18-hole rounds of stroke play on Aug. 8 and 9. After nearly 1,500 players entered qualifying for the amateur, the starting field of 156 athletes was cut to only the top 64 for match play after the first two days. Smith made the match play round and ended up placing 33rd overall after a 3&2 loss to New Mexico's Lauren Lehigh in the round of 64.
“More than anything at Chambers Bay, I thought she did a great job of managing herself and learning not to let setbacks from match play be defining for her, but also just use that as fuel,” UNC women’s golf head coach Aimee Neff said.
Smith said playing at Chambers Bay was a learning experience. Growing up in North Carolina and playing for UNC, the farthest she’s ever traveled to play was when the Tar Heels played in the Clover Cup in Mesa, Ariz., last year.
Neff said taking on a course like Chambers Bay with such different geography and performing well is a testament to Smith’s skill as a golfer. Although the outcome of the match play round wasn’t exactly what she wanted, Neff said Smith proved she is still one of the best amateur players in the country, even when she isn't at her best.
Although the U.S . Amateur was a different type of challenge, Smith has been no stranger to playing in high-stake situations.
Smith experienced her first postseason this past spring, when the Tar Heels made their first NCAA appearance since 2019 and placed seventh at the 2022 NCAA Ann Arbor Regional, just three spots from making the championship in Arizona.
“Obviously, NCAA play and postseason are super important,” said Smith. “It’s a whole different thing from regular season golf because you have to be on top of everything. It was really great to go out there and put together some pretty solid rounds.”
Despite the outcome of last year’s finish, Smith said the team has a lot to look forward to in the coming season.
“It stinks to come up a little short and not make it to nationals," Smith said, "but I think that we can use that and have that fuel us to make sure that happens next year."
Going into the next season with such her extensive amateur experience over the season, Smith has the opportunity to grow even more as a player. Getting experience with postseason play, larger tournaments, and dealing with setbacks opens up a door of new possibilities for her and the rest of the team.
“I think (Smith’s) swagger, the way her attitude is, she’s a fierce competitor, she wants to win, and she has shown a willingness to grow and improve, which I think is what it takes to continue to elevate your game,” Neff said. “I appreciate that she has swagger and confidence, but I also know that, at the same time, she still is receptive to learning and growing.”
Smith finished last season with the second-best stroke average on the team. Along the way, she said she’s honored to be among the names of the best that have ever played at UNC, and uses that as motivation to continue to improve and break even more records.
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