A Sort of Homecoming
If it was possible to feel at home and out of your comfort zone at the same time, University of Central Florida senior golfer Stephanie Connelly did so on Tuesday during the first round of the NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship at Caves Valley Golf Course in Owings Mills, Md.
Competing in her final collegiate tournament, Connelly qualified for the Championship as an individual. No teammates, just her and her coach, Emilee Klein.
Yet, at same time, Connolly felt very much at home on the course just 40 minutes from her home in Pasadena, Md., on the outskirts of Baltimore. She certainly felt at home at Caves Valley during Tuesday's first round, firing an even-par 72 and was tied for fifth place through the middle of the day.
"It is weird to be without the girls," Connelly said afterward. "It's still a college event. I'm used to having everyone here and saying good luck to my teammates, but it's nice because I can do my own thing, do my practice when I want and I don't have to worry about holding anyone up, but it's definitely weird."
Connelly, who placed second in the NCAA East Regional last weekend in Gainesville, Fla., struggled out of the box - bogeying the first two holes of the day, the par-4, 396-yard first hole and the par-4, 377-yard second hole - but came back strong and had birdies on three holes on the back-nine.
"I putted and chipped pretty well," Connelly said. "I didn't hit the ball great. When I hit it well, I was really close. I was pretty much getting up and down a lot of the time."
"I putted well and made a lot of good par putts. I wasn't always right next to the hole, but my speed was pretty good, but I just limited my mistakes."
Knowledge of Caves Valley was an added bonus for Connelly, a former Baltimore Sun and Washington Post Player of the Year who played this same course in the Maryland Open and again in the 2004 Canon Cup. She knew the challenges would be much different than anything she had seen this year.
"It's familiar, sure, because I've played here and played well here," Connelly said. "It's good to just be up North again. It's an adjustment the past couple of days because we really don't play any courses that are similar to this in college golf."
"The rough is much thicker, it's playing pretty long and it's longer than we usually play. The greens are much faster. It's championship golf. Regular season is tough, but this is definitely how a championship should be set up."
Like any competitor, Connelly came into the Championships with high expectations, but she got off to a rough start with consecutive bogeys on her first two holes.
Adding to the pressure a bit was the fact that Connelly had a larger following than most, with her parents - Michael and Alicia - among a group of nearly 10 people watching her play.
"I think I was a little anxious at the start because I feel a little extra pressure of being from here and having everyone here watching every shot I hit," Connelly said. "I really wanted to show off, but I think I settled down after the second hole. I got into a rhythm and got it going. I was just thinking, `They're going to love me either way, so how about we relax and just play well.'"
Play well she did.
She recorded pars on the next four holes before posting a birdie on the par-3, 185-yard eighth hole. A bogey on the ninth hole gave her a 2-over par 38 going out, but she caught fire on the back.
After consecutive pars on 10 and 11, respectively, she birdied three of the next six holes, including the two longest on the course, the par-5, 531-yard 13th hole and the par-5, 454-yard 17th hole.
"Even when I was struggling, I still expected to do well," Connelly said. "Especially now that I have started to play better and the way I want to, I'm not accepting bad starts. I started out bogey-bogey and I'm not accepting that."
"That's helping me play better throughout the round. I'm trying to get my expectations back up to par and under, where they should be, where they need to be, especially heading into a pro career."
But before her pro career begins - Connelly is slated to play in a Futures Tour event in early June - she wants to compete one last time for a title.
"It's like I'm carrying the banner for my team," she explained. "I hope I can do that. I hope that I can be a good representative for UCF."
As she walked the 6,443-yard course on a sunny day, Connelly saw her score and the scores of her competitors and knew that she was doing just that.
"It feel good," she said. "Even par? That's the goal, right? Always even or under?"
"With the way I hit the ball today, I'd definitely take that score. I noticed the scoreboards as I was walking the course. It's playing tough, but I feel pretty good about it."
She has three more days left in her college career and wants to relish every second of it.
"This is a big deal for me," Connelly said. "I've never made nationals before. It's even more so because I am from here and I think people expect a lot of me and I expect a lot of myself."
"It's a lot of fun. Getting to have family come out and watch who haven't really seen me since junior golf. I haven't played in the area. It'll be good to have some of my friends come out and it will be a nice way to end my career."
By Mike "Mex" Carey