Texas A&M photo
When Gerrod Chadwell walked into his first day of work as head coach of the Texas A&M women’s golf team, he knew a tall task was ahead of him.
The building needed a fresh coat of paint. Some contemporary graphics. Even worse, a major freeze in Texas destroyed the practice greens. “College athletics is a facilities arms race,” Chadwell says. “Everything, for lack of a better word, was tired.”
Chadwell acknowledges that in two years, he couldn’t have imagined that the women’s golf team’s selection party would draw a large crowd and a throng of media to affirm their No. 1 seed at the 2023 NCAA San Antonio Regional.
2023 SEC Champions
The personnel was in need of a major update, too. In order to take a 90th-ranked team to the top of the SEC, talented players were going to need to buy into Chadwell’s vision. He’d spent the past eight years with the Houston Cougars, a program he led to six-consecutive Regionals and three individuals over at Nationals.
He took to the transfer portal in search of players who also wanted a new start. Zoe Slaughter, who he had also recruited to Houston, was top of mind. So was Hailee Cooper, whose incredible game had faltered and had her on the brink of quitting altogether. Above all, their selflessness was what Chadwell loved most.
“They are the consummate teammate, and that’s me too. I was a pass-first guy,” he says, referring to his basketball days. “I’m so thankful for them to take that leap of faith and see the vision we had.”
Jennie Park, a talented player from TCU who had made plenty of noise in her junior career, was also in the conversation. Despite nerves surrounding the big change, all three of these players would take on Chadwell’s first year right beside him.
But what most might have perceived as a rebuilding year, didn’t pan out that way at all. “It’s kind of cool that ended up being us,” Cooper said. “I definitely didn’t think it was going to happen that fast.”
The top fives and runner-up finishes were quickly piling up. Their first conference outing resulted in the Aggies just missing match play, but a comeback final day at Regionals sent the program to its first NCAA Championship since 2015.
The history wouldn’t stop there. The team would finish third in stroke play to capture a match play berth, toppling Florida State in a close quarterfinal, and for the first time, Texas A&M women’s golf would compete for a spot in the NCAA Final. But Oregon proved too much, and the Aggies would fall, 3-1.
“It was just a lot of emotions at once,” Slaughter said. “It was kind of hard to handle.” The adversity would only bring a close group even closer and put them into hyperdrive.
“I’m not above anything that I ask them to do,” Chadwell says. “We’re at every 6 A.M. workout, we’re on the road recruiting relentlessly. They’re out here constantly on their time off, working on their game, asking questions, going home, and working with their coaches.”
The time outside of the facility is just as meaningful as it is spent inside it. “We’re always together. We text each other 24/7,” Slaughter says. “I’ve never been this close with a group of people before, and I love it.” That camaraderie allowed Slaughter to blossom, thriving in what Cooper describes as “insane” iron play. “She never misses a green, I swear.”
Slaughter earned her first collegiate win at the ICON Invitational in February, embellishing what was already a groundbreaking career as the first African-American player in program history. “That’s incredible to me,” she says. “I’m just proud to be able to represent that for every African-American girl who wants to get into golf.”
Meanwhile, Cooper was digging deep into the mental side of her golf. In a tearful conversation one day, Coach Chadwell pleaded to Cooper. “I don’t understand why you aren’t confident in yourself,” he said. “I believe in you. I’m 100 percent always going to believe in you.” Her swing, she admits, looks about the same – but it was shortening her incredible length to hit more fairways and boost her overall self-esteem that made her fall in love with the game of golf.
Cooper would ultimately reduce her overall stroke average by an entire six strokes.
Park has flourished in her incredible consistency, collecting three top fives and finishing the top ten at her first Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Blanca Fernandez Garcia-Poggio, the hatless senior who has spent her entire career in College Station, has wowed with her incredible short game. Adela Cernousek, the sophomore, and Slaughter mirror each other’s games and inspire one another.
This lineup, a team that was once out of sight, out of mind in college golf’s toughest conference, has spearheaded an incredible charge – tallying the win column to five and vaulting the program into an SEC Championship in a matter of two years.
But the championship didn’t come easily. Finishing just outside of the matchplay threshold was a tough memory to shake. An uneasy first day had the Aggies finishing in tenth, and the conditions for day two at Greystone weren’t boosting anyone’s confidence. 25 mph wind and rain lingered, and though it didn’t look like their best golf, they ground out a steady finish to secure the No. 4 seed – and advance to match play for the first time in program history.
With ease, Texas A&M knocked out Florida 4-1 to advance to the semifinals. Defeating South Carolina called on the team’s tenacity, with Fernandez Garcia-Poggio clinching the final point in 23 holes.
The clutch heroics did not end there. Mississippi State, another program that wanted its first SEC title in the match play era, would not go down without a fight. Park was the first to clinch a point for the Aggies with a decisive 6&5 victory–but when Garcia-Poggio and Cernousek fell 2&1, it began to look like the Bulldogs would seal the deal.
It was left to Cooper and Slaughter to turn it around – and Cooper eventually would, winning 2UP. Slaughter, who was playing Mississippi State freshman Surapa Janthamunee, would lose the advantage on No. 17 by missing a crucial three-footer and went tied to the 18th hole.
‘One of us is gonna break,’ she reminded herself. Chadwell knew there was far more left in the tank for his junior – and knew how much she deserved that moment. “I didn’t want that to be the deciding factor,” Chadwell said. “I knew it’d affect her for a really long time.”
When Cooper concluded her match, she expressed a very similar sentiment. “I really want her in this position,” she told her mom as they watched Slaughter, reflecting on a similar experience at the East Lake Cup in the fall. “It’s her turn.”
Slaughter and Janthamunee would tie the next four holes for a playoff that went to 21 holes, but on the deciding hole, Janthamunee would land in the bunker while Slaughter found herself on the green.
Cheers from her teammates poured out as Slaughter walked up which appeared about 50 feet from the hole. “This is your moment!” “We love you!”
That reminded Slaughter of her entire purpose. “It wasn’t just for me. It was strictly for them.” Once Janthamunee chipped out of the bunker to 20 feet away, Slaughter’s objective was clear – two-putt for the win. Slaughter lagged her putt to just a few feet, maintaining her advantage.
This was it. Her hands were shaking, and her heart was racing, but reminding herself of the cheers gave her a much-needed sense of calm.
History wouldn’t repeat itself. This time, the three-footer went in with absolute ease.
Instantly, an outpour of love surrounded her. Her teammates rushed to encase her in a hug, and her mother followed. Chadwell ended his post-match interview choking up. “I’m so happy for them,” he said. “Winning and losing – they just do it right.”
When the lights shone on the team back at College Station to celebrate their No. 1 seed – he was reminded – in only two short years, Texas A&M women’s golf had got it right.