(February 28, 2021) – Last March Alexa Brown and the Fairfield University women's golf team were in the middle of their spring season, concluding a ten-day trip that included a tournament in South Carolina, a tournament in Florida, and an alumni-sponsored trip to Bears Club and Medalist Golf Club.
Finn Boynton and the UConn golf team were on campus, practicing while in-between trips south. They had just finished the Fort Lauderdale Intercollegiate Championship in early March and were gearing up for their next trip at the end of the month.
Then Covid-19 hit and everything stopped.
“It was the first day of our alumni-sponsored trip and they told us to fly home immediately,” Fairfield senior Alexa Brown said. “They told us two-weeks.” Of course, it wasn't two-weeks, it wasn't two months, it wasn't six months. Everything in life took on a new normal, including what it meant to be a college golfer in Connecticut. Immediately after the shutdown teams scattered around the country and world. Instead of preparing for the stretch run of the season, preparing for conference championships, and beyond, there was a sudden nothing.
“We were at practice when we get the news and it was definitely an emotional time,” said UConn senior Finn Boynton. “We had seniors that didn’t know they were playing in their last event [at Fort Lauderdale]. It was a time that was very unexpected. It was a time that we had to overcome as a team.”
Like the rest of the world, Zoom became the leading form of communication between players, coaches, and administration. Text messaging became the primary form of communication between teammates, while others got more creative in how they stayed connected.
“They are doing stuff on their own pretty consistently,” said Yale women's golf head coach Lauren Harling. “They like to get online and do game nights as a team. We do weekly meetings. It has been really good for us especially with me being newer to invest in our culture and the future of the program. I have been excited and pretty pleased with their engagement and input. We have listened to podcasts, read books, and it has been fun.”
Stepping away from the grind of college golf has also allowed the student-athletes to get more involved in their local communities in ways they may not have been able to otherwise. Players have been able to professionally network, participate in local internships, and get involved in local non-profits. Yale's Ashly Yu began working for Strong Girls United, an organization that pairs college-age students with young girls that are in elementary school so that they can start building confidence.
However, the question that always lingered was, when will teams be able to return to competition. As the fall 2020 semester began it quickly became clear that despite some teams from around the country playing a fall season, teams in Connecticut would have to wait at least until the spring.
During the fall semester, golf became a bit of a waiting game. Teams were allowed to practice but under strict protocols and at times had to pause following Covid-19 concerns on campus. Coaches and players became accustomed to being able to practice one-day but not the next. “Instead of being concerned about statistics and scores and improvement my focus has been more on teaching the student-athletes the right way to take this,” explained Fairfield men's and women's head coach Doug Holub. “We have been encouraging, helping them realize this isn’t the only crisis they will go through in their lives. Let's take this the right way and do this the right way and follow the rules.”
Late last year schools started to get the green light for putting together a schedule and by the time the calendar flipped to 2021 plans were in place to begin a season. The UConn golf team was the first team to set their sites on a season-opening tournament. Players were required to return to campus on January 3rd so that they could go through an extensive testing and quarantine period before they could start preparing for the Big East Match Play at the beginning of February in Clearwater, Florida.
“Around the middle of November, we had been planning a schedule, and then it would change every week. We had travel concerns and it was ever-changing. I got used to making changes for safety and other reasons,” said UConn head coach Dave Pezzino. “But I knew we were in great hands with our administration and medical staff and a lot of credit for us to be competing goes out to them. And of course to our athletes for the will to quarantine to stay in their dorms and apartments. They had to sacrifice in a lot of ways being a human being.”
Finally, after the quarantine period was over it became golf again. Some familiarity had returned. Class (although in many cases virtual), practice at the team's new facility inside Gampel Pavilion, and tournament preparation. All leading up to playing in a competition for the first time since last March. Of course, there are still protocols to follow, and players are required to test a few days before each tournament. Traveling is done with a mask, there are partitions in the team van. But despite all of the testing and protocols when the tee goes into the ground a golf tournament becomes a golf tournament again.
“I would say this has brought the team closer together than ever before,” Boynton, the 2019 Connecticut Amateur semifinalist said. “After being in a position where everything is taken from you, then getting over all the hurdles, and being able to compete and be around our teammates and brothers it has given me the perspective of don’t take this for granted. It has drawn the team closer together than any team I have ever been on. It has been great.”
In their first tournament back the Huskies finished second and then topped that finish with a victory one week later at the Earl Yestingsmeier Match Play. The Huskies are off to a hot start and have seven more events on their schedule including the Big East Tournament at the end of April and their own UConn Collegiate Invitational hosted by Ellington Ridge Country Club at the beginning of the month.
Many of the other Division I programs in Connecticut will soon make their way to the course as well. The Fairfield men's and women's teams, Sacred Heart men's and women's teams, Hartford men's and women's teams along with the women's team at Quinnipiac are all scheduled to begin their season in March. However, unlike UConn which has already made two trips to Florida the remaining in-state schools will play the bulk of their schedules within driving distance of their campuses. The lone exception in many cases will be for conference championships.
[We] are very excited to have the ability to compete this spring and see how [the student-athlete's] hard work this past off-season will translate to college golf,” said Sacred Heart men's and women's head coach Matt McGreevy. “It will be good to get back out there and see everyone and get those competitive juices moving again.”
Unfortunately not all Connecticut teams will be returning to the course. On February 18th the Ivy League announced that they would not be hosting any league contests or conference championships this spring. Teams are allowed to practice and if, “public health conditions substantially improve and if permitted by an institution, local non-conference competition may be allowed to occur this spring.” As a result, the wait to compete for the men's and women's teams at Yale continues.
In the meantime practice for the Bulldogs will continue, “Just like every year we will shovel the snow off the mats at the range in late February and take advantage of those nice sunny days,” says Yale men's head coach Colin Sheehan. “I’m not sure what the schedule is for the golf course, it will definitely open at some point. The snow will melt at some point in April and I am looking forward to taking our practice from the gym to the course.”
In a typical year, the majority of college events are multiday events, with teams playing 36 or 54 holes. This season will look different with teams playing several one-day 18 hole events against other teams from the northeast.
Once it became clear that regionalized events were going to be the structure the season was formed around, Hartford men's and women's head coach Pete Stankevich stepped to the forefront. Stankevich picked up the phone and started calling courses throughout Connecticut and he currently has four one-day events scheduled, all with between 12-18 teams committed. The first Hartford One-Day will be on March 22nd at Blackledge Country Club with additional events being held on March 26th at Wintonbury Hills Golf Course, April 9th at Tumble Brook Country Club, and April 18th at Gillette Ridge Golf Club
“Once we saw that travel in the spring was likely going to be restricted to regional play a bunch of [regional coaches] have gotten together by phone, text, email, and said we would have to do something locally. Once I started looking at potential dates and locations and sending it out to other schools I noticed there was a lot of interest in it. Schools are trying to keep it local and not stay in hotels,” said Stankevich.
Additional precautions will be taken at each event such as having teams play as a five-some rather than mix and match players from different teams. “It will be a little safer, might be a little slower and coaches will be with each group keeping score,” Stankevich said. “The players like to play with other schools, prefer it but you have to adjust to what is the new normal. Really everyone is anxious to compete.”
When all is said and done, the season won't be what teams are accustomed to and it won't be as long as they would have hoped. But there will be a season, and the athletes will get a chance to safely compete in the sport that they love. At the end of the day that will be more than good enough for the players and coaches.