Texas junior Emilee Hoffman (UT Athletics photo)
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – It’s not nearly time to start talking about match play. Texas, along with the rest of the national-championship field, has merely entered the Blessings gauntlet. Still, Emilee Hoffman pieced together an opening 1-under 72 on Friday in much the same way she’d approach a head-to-head match.
“You’re never out of a hole,” Hoffman said in giving her best match-play nuggets. She would know: She’s the reigning champion of the Women’s Western Amateur, one of the major match-play events of the summer.
Hoffman’s round was the best Longhorn score on Friday. She opened with 11 consecutive pars, which may sound understated but was a saving grace for Texas as several teams played themselves right out of this tournament over the opening holes. Half the players in the 132-woman field had 80 or higher in the opening round.
As for Hoffman, the Longhorn junior kept the ball in front of her, made several “wedge pars” on the back nine and never made higher than a bogey.
Texas, at 10 over after the first round, is tied for the lead with host Arkansas. Stanford and Arizona are two shots back.
The whole Texas team has been putting on championship-caliber greens for days as the UT Golf Club in Austin prepared to host the men’s regional that took place earlier this week. Hoffman cited that experience as being valuable for tournament prep.
Three Texas players also brought experience on Augusta National greens to the Blessings. Hoffman and teammates Kaitlyn Papp and Agathe Laisne teed it up at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last month. Only the latter two made the 36-hole cut and thus competed at Augusta, but Hoffman also got to play a practice round there.
“They’re very similar with how fast they are and the amount of slope and undulation,” Papp said.
Meanwhile, Texas head coach Ryan Murphy – and the rest of the estimated 20,000 fans who lived that experience – was pinching himself. There is arguably no more visible stage than the ANWA for women’s amateur golf, and Texas had three players there.
“That was cool,” Murphy said, searching for words for the whole experience. “That was surreal.”
Prep pedigree aside, Texas is deep. Hoffman words that with the term “belief.” Team chemistry has been critical this year.
“We know that our team always has our back,” Hoffman said. “If one person is struggling, we know there’s going to be another person there to help and put together a solid round. We always know we have a chance.”
Papp relays a more aggressive slogan: savage season. It’s how the Longhorns have been referring to a year in which they’ve won five times as a team. There are many things that go into that phrase, but depth is a big part of it. Among the Texas starting five, three women are ranked inside Golfweek’s
top 23 individuals.
Freshman Hailee Cooper, who won Texas’ home event this fall, has been a quality addition. Cooper and Papp combined to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball in 2017.
Put another check in the match-play experience column.
As for Laisne, sophomore year has seen her blossom. The Frenchwoman is not a native English speaker, but she bit off a big goal in applying to Texas’ business school. Murphy was behind that every step of the way.
“I think the big difference is when I was a freshman, I really wanted to get into the business school. I focused a lot on academics and I wasn’t that focused on golf. Now I got in, so I’m really grateful for that,” said Laisne, who came to Austin weeks after winning the 2017 European Ladies Amateur.
Laisne’s scoring average dropped two strokes from last season to this season. In the meantime, she has discovered that there are other perks to life in Texas, too. Laisne is a foodie – she imagines she might one day use her degree to start a multi-national restaurant business -- and loves what the Austin food scene has to offer. Her best discovery? Tacos. Her favorite thing, however, is a nice big steak.
With Laisne’s game back on track, Texas really does
look savage. A lack of big numbers at Blessings makes a statement.
“I’m excited and anxious,” Murphy said of bringing in a team that has spent time as No. 1 in the country, and which truly plays like it. “I know when the golf course is hard, it favors us.”
Part of what makes Blessings so difficult, from Murphy’s perspective, is that it’s so comprehensive. It tests everything about you as a golfer.
“You have to hit it well, you have to think well, you have to have touch on the greens, and if you’re missing one of those things, you’ll be exposed and it’s costly,” Murphy said. “If you’re missing two of those things, you’re screwed.”
Texas doesn’t have anything – or anyone – to hide.