Ready to shine: Blessings contributes to unique Arkansas formula
Coach Shauna Taylor and senior Kaylee Benton (Razorbacks Athletics Communications)
Coach Shauna Taylor and senior Kaylee Benton (Razorbacks Athletics Communications)

Facilities can define a program, and there’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Blessings Golf Club. This month, as the NCAA Championship comes to town, Blessings will go from a community treasure to a nationally televised wonder. It was made for this.

Blessings is both beautiful and gnarly, and it’s a real asset for Arkansas golf. Before the course opened in 2004, the Razorbacks practiced all over town. Now there’s not only a designated course, but a compound, complete with a gym, indoor Dave Pelz-designed short-game area, SIM putting lab and team rooms. It all feels planned to the inch, maintained to the highest degree and used in the most strategic way.

And it’s gorgeous. The buildings are clean and crisp, the driving range is enormous and, maybe even better, it’s deserted. Only about 160 members play and practice here, which means the college players all but have the run of the place.

Freedom goes a long way in college golf.

“It probably changed our program forever,” Arkansas head women’s golf coach Shauna Taylor said back in 2017, when two weeks of NCAA championship golf still felt lightyears away.

Blessings can be just as good of a personal postseason tool as it is a postseason host. As the course underwent a renovation at the end of the 2016-17 season, Arkansas failed to qualify for the national championship, played at Rich Harvest Farms that year. That’s when Taylor realized the quality of preparation that Blessings provides. It’s a test for players, and it shapes their games over the course of their time in Fayetteville.

Senior Maria Fassi said Blessings demands precision and discipline each day. Teammate Dylan Kim cites the visuals.

“I think (Blessings has) made me sharper around the greens because it’s a very tough golf course,” Kim said. “It’s very visually demanding and you see cliffs and huge drop-offs and you have to take a deep breath and swing. I think it has helped me.”

Kim transferred from Baylor for her final two years. That Arkansas would host the NCAAs at the end of her eligibility was a big sticking point. Fassi felt the same.

As the story goes, Fassi earned an LPGA card in October that she could have accepted immediately. Instead, she deferred to finish out the season with her team. That decision said everything you need to know about Fassi – and everything Taylor already knew.

“She’s put into action what she says and she’s always loved Arkansas,” Taylor said in explaining why Fassi is even here this week.

It’s no small thing to host a national championship, but the Arkansas program stands to get more attention than it maybe ever has out of the next two weeks. The program is ready for the eyes.

Stacy Lewis, a 12-time LPGA winner who is certainly the Razorbacks’ most recognizable player, was there early in Taylor’s tenure, and has been in a unique position to watch the program explode with growth. Taylor was an assistant coach when Lewis arrived, and when former head coach Kelly Hester left for another coaching opportunity, Lewis appealed to the athletic director. She wasn’t sure she’d stay if anyone but Taylor took over the program.

“We spent so much time together and she was really kind of vital to me in my short game and learning how to practice that,” Lewis said. “I didn’t win a bunker competition against her for three years.”

Lewis calls Taylor the hardest worker she’s ever seen. Getting an NCAA Women’s Championship to Blessings was absolutely strategic, especially when you know how Taylor thinks.

“Just going after an NCAA championship, that’s who she is,” Lewis said. “She wants to be the best, and to give herself the best opportunity is to host and she knows that. She knows that having it there gives them the best opportunity to win a national championship.”

There’s no better way for Arkansas’ two-year wonder run to finish than at home. The Razorbacks were arguably the most talked-about team during the 2017-18 season. They won six times, which included the SEC Championship and a regional, but missed the match-play cut at the national championship. This season, Arkansas hasn’t won a tournament, but been in the top 4 eight times. Most importantly, they got through regionals for the chance to play at home.

“We’ve been very transparent about that,” Taylor said of the pressure on her team to qualify for the tournament they were already hosting. “We haven’t tried to hide it under the rug. The elephant is in the room guys, and we’ll just make him a team member.”

Taylor’s team was assigned to the regional in Cle Elum, Wash., which amounted to a major scenery change, and that might have actually been a positive. Arkansas went on team hikes and they bonded. The three seniors in the postseason lineup – Dylan Kim, Maria Fassi and Kaylee Benton – told the underclassmen not to worry. We’ll pick you up.

Taylor is an introspective coach. Throughout national championship week, Arkansas will be able to use its own locker room and live all the motivating reminders that goes with that. The Razorbacks generally have a team motto. This year’s involves dominoes: Be a good one.

“If one person tips over, you could tip over everybody. We have to have each other’s back and we have to work as a group of nine people to accomplish our goals.”

There’s a poster in the team room that shows a row of upright dominoes, with a player’s name assigned to each. Putting drills throughout the season started with dominoes instead of tees. These are the kinds of lessons that Taylor passes on: to work hard, to be a good human, to pick up your teammates.

LPGA player Gaby Lopez, a 2016 Arkansas graduate and one of the Razorbacks’ celebrated #prohogs, wound up in Fayetteville against the advice of many peers (“Where is Arkansas on the map? Why aren’t you going to UCLA or Florida?”), but took a little piece of Taylor and assistant coach Mike Adams away with her.

“They put a lot of their recipe into mine,” Lopez said.

And it’s a good recipe.

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