Despite a slow start to the season, the UNC women’s golf team recently bounced back with a third-place finish at the Texas A&M "'Mo’Morial”.
The Tar Heels had a disappointing showing at the Cougar Classic in mid-September, finishing 16th out of 18 teams. The key difference at Texas A&M was improvement between rounds and strong individual play from seniors Krista Junkkari and Kayla Smith.
According to head coach Aimee Neff, the improvement all came down to her team trusting the process.
“Fall in love with the process,” Neff said. “You never know when the process will love you back.”
For UNC, the process began with slow starts over the first 18 holes in each of the first two tournaments. The Tar Heels shot 290 as a team in the first round of the Cougar Classic and saw little to no improvement in the subsequent rounds, shooting 296 in the second and 287 in the third.
The team shot 300 in the first round at Texas A&M and improved to 280 strokes in each of the following rounds, which was good for 4-under par for the event. The third-place finish was the program’s best since March 2019 in the Bryan National Collegiate in Browns Summit, N.C., where the Tar Heels placed second.
“We know we have the ability, I think it’s just continuing to be persistent,” Neff said. “For those last 36 holes, we were the best team on that field.”
Smith was a bright spot for UNC, collecting the first collegiate tournament win of her career at Texas A&M.
Smith and Junkkari both shot 68 in the third round, the lowest mark of any Tar Heel this season. Junkkari shot 211, good for 5-under par, on her way to a fifth-place individual finish, while Smith shot a 207 en route to the tournament victory.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Smith said. “I’m taking that momentum forward to the rest of the season.”
UNC is now heading into a busy October beginning with the Ivy Intercollegiate in Springfield, N.J., that starts on Oct. 10.
With three tournaments in October looming, UNC is face-to-face with the challenge of constant improvement. Despite a large leap in play from the Cougar Classic to the Texas A&M “‘Mo’Morial,” UNC is not comfortable with complacency.
“The goal isn’t just to get third,” Neff said. “When we compete, we want to win.”
For Junkkari, that improvement comes in small steps. The preparation is not done exclusively in the time between tournaments. Rather, it is an accumulation of the work UNC has been putting in since the off-season.
“It’s all about trusting the process and all the training we’ve done up until today,” Junkkari said.
That patience is what's guiding the Tar Heels moving forward. As they play in more tournaments, their game will continue to improve. As they get more reps, their first-round woes should fade away.
Success is not always a linear path, though, and that is something Neff is keenly aware of.
“In golf and life, you’re going to have ups and downs,” Neff said. “So, not getting too down whenever things don’t go your way, and also knowing that when things are up you’ve got to continue to work hard.”
Beginning with the Ivy Intercollegiate, UNC looks to put the process to practice. Following its trip to Springfield, UNC will host the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational at the Governors Club in Chapel Hill starting on Oct. 17.
Going forward, the Tar Heels are confident that trust in the process will deliver them success.
“It’s just about getting settled into that competition mode,” Junkkari said. “The game’s there, it’s just a matter of time.”
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