Vanderbilt's UCF Challenge-winning team (AGC photo)
ORLANDO, Fla. – If just one lesson from Vanderbilt head coach Greg Allen has hit home with senior Courtney Zeng, it’s that what you do on the golf course doesn’t define you. And if there was one lesson you wanted to land with a multi-talented kid like Zeng, that would be it.
Zeng is the only senior on a Vanderbilt team that’s light on age but deep in experience. She believes in leading by example, so it’s easy to see why, with an effervescent Zeng out front, the Commodores genuinely like
each other. That has played a big role in a two-win season, and there’s still a lot of season to go.
Vanderbilt got its second team title at the UCF Challenge on Feb. 5. Several teams behind the Commodores made a final-round run on a warm, sunny day at Eagle Creek Golf Club. But Vanderbilt hung on, finishing at 23 under to win by eight shots.
“Today was new,” junior Abbey Carlson noted, “holding the lead overnight and actually finishing the final round because we had a couple that didn’t happen.”
The third and final round was rained out when Vanderbilt won its own Mason Rudolph in September. The final round was also cancelled, thanks to an approaching hurricane, when the team finished second at the Cougar Classic the week before that.
Vanderbilt’s UCF Challenge title almost feels like a home win, considering that three of the five women in the lineup grew up in Orlando. Two of them – Zeng and Morgan Baxendale – were high school teammates. A fourth player in the lineup, Auston Kim, is from St. Augustine, Fla.
The week started with a team dinner at Abbey Carlson’s parents’ house. After that, there were “family nights” which allowed for some quality time before the season really picks up.
The past four seasons have been lean for Vanderbilt. The Commodores last made it to the NCAA Women’s Championship as a team in May 2014, when they won an NCAA Regional to get there. Not a single player on Allen’s squad has ever experienced the national championship. With Zeng’s time running out, that’s a motivator.
“We’re going to get back on that train,” she said.
Zeng nearly made it as an individual as a freshman. Last year, a postseason squad that included three freshmen finished 12th at the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, 21 shots out of it.
“I knew it wasn’t a guarantee,” Carlson said of having yet to see NCAA action in two and a half years on the team. “Freshman year, it hurt a lot not even getting to regionals. . . . It was kind of a motivator. Like, ‘OK, you don’t want to be in this place again.’”
Allen doesn’t want his team to just get there, he wants them to compete. Vanderbilt will have to not only play well but put the nerves aside. The team’s performance in Orlando is a good indicator that they can do both.
Winter weather can be dicey in Nashville, and that didn’t allow for much prep before this week’s season-opener. For Vanderbilt to go 23 under – and, as Allen said, do it without losing their calm over a three-day span – shows a lot.
“There’s belief among this team that we can go out and play,” Allen said.
All things considered, expectations for results were low this week.
“We never talked about winning this thing,” Allen said. “We just talked about hitting shots, having fun and having a good attitude.”
Vanderbilt delivered on all three levels.
Over and over again, team members brought up the comfort they feel when they’re together. Kim, a freshman, has never known college golf to be any other way, having arrived at Vanderbilt and gelled immediately. When Kim set up a 20-foot eagle putt on the 18th from 217 yards out, her teammates were on their toes behind the green. The team title was already in the bag, but a potential two-shot swing at the 18th would put Kim a playoff for the individual title.
When Kim two-putted for birdie and Miami freshman Anna Backman made par, Backman secured her one-shot win.
Vanderbilt finished the fall season ranked No. 3 in the Golfweek
/Sagarin College Rankings. Top-5 teams are often full of players itching to get to professional golf, but two of Vanderbilt’s top 3 scorers have no desire to go that route.
Carlson entered college with the plan to turn pro eventually but has dived deeper into a mechanical engineering degree she hopes will set her up to work in the aerospace industry. Zeng already has a job lined up with venture capital firm B Capital in Los Angeles.
Having that on the horizon has put college golf in perspective for Zeng, maybe more than ever before.
“I have practiced the least I ever have, but just having the mindset that I’m just going out to there, enjoy what I can and have fun has allowed me to relax and play well,” she said.