ON A COLD, WINDY FEBRUARY DAY, Josefine Nyqvist and Teresa Caballer Hernani stood on opposite greens. Despite the frigid weather, Nyqvist worked on her putting, while Caballer Hernani practiced her chipping.
The two Europeans playing women’s golf for Georgia Regents University (formerly Augusta State) are looking ahead to the future. For them, playing college golf is the next step to playing professional golf. And practicing in chilly conditions is part of the deal.
Caballer Hernani of Alicante, Spain, says she wanted to play college golf in Augusta for various reasons, the main one being her game’s development. “My intention is to turn pro,” she says. “I felt a lot of people here would be very supportive. I felt like I had lots of opportunities here. And it’s a great program.”
While Augusta is world-renown for the Masters Tournament, the city’s public university is becoming a place known for churning out championships as well as pro golfers. The men’s program captivated the nation by winning back-to-back NCAA Division I national titles as a heavy underdog in 2010 and 2011. Those teams featured PGA Tour pro Patrick Reed, who won the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship, became a U.S. Ryder Cup standout in the fall and qualified for his second Masters Tournament this year. Reed’s teammate Henrik Norlander is currently playing on the Web.com Tour. Older men’s golfers to play for the Jaguars include Vaughn Taylor, a two-time PGA Tour winner, and Oliver Wilson, the 2014 Alfred Dunhill Links champion on the European Tour.
“Let’s not settle for anything less than making it to the national championship.”
THE WOMEN’S PROGRAM doesn’t have that pedigree, at least not yet. The program is just 15 years old and is still on the ascent. This season’s team entered this spring ranked number 24 in NCAA Division I golf. Georgia Regents, which also goes by GRU Augusta, is seeking its first national championship appearance.
Last year, Nyqvist, Jessica Haigwood and Eunice Yi—all ranked inside the top 200 in the world amateur golf rankings—helped anchor a team that finished 11th in the West Regional, missing a national championship by eight shots.
Now the sophomore trio is back in the lineup, along with the talented Caballer Hernani. The squad produced a victory, a runner-up finish and a pair of fourth-place showings in the fall. The national championship is in Bradenton, Fla., this year, and the Jaguars want to be there.
“Last year, we didn’t play well at all in the regional,” fourth-year coach Kory Henkes says. “We were really close and that was with three freshmen. I think it just gave them the confidence to know that we can do this and we belong here. Let’s not settle for anything other than making it to the national championship.”
While the Jaguars are still trying to make a mark in its young existence, women’s championship golf has a rich history in Augusta. The Titleholders began in 1937 as a women’s companion event to the Masters. Because there were few women golfers and women’s tournaments at the time, a field of just six amateurs competed, with Patty Berg winning the first of seven Titleholders titles. By 1940, the field had tripled.
The tournament continued to grow in stature and became a “major,” even awarding a light green jacket to the winner. Many of the women’s professional greats of the day won a Titleholders event—Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Babe Zaharias and Louise Suggs. Even golf legend Bobby Jones came to the awards ceremony for several years to honor the champion.
During the tournament’s run, the LPGA was founded in 1950. As the new tour grew roots, the Titleholders continued to thrive. In its final year (1966), the event offered a $10,000 purse, making it the richest event on the women’s circuit. With its purse, though, came the struggles of sustaining funding and the event died out in Augusta.
While the Titleholders tournament dissolved, talk of starting a women’s golf program at Augusta State began in the mid-1990s when Augusta State President William A. Bloodworth Jr. spoke with athletic director Clint Bryant about the possibility of adding the program. In November 1998, the school formed a seven-member task force to deliver a feasibility plan. At the time, only three schools in Georgia featured a women’s program: Georgia, Georgia State and Mercer.
Last year, Josefine Nyqvist, Jessica Haigwood and Eunice Yi…all ranked inside the top 200 in the world amateur golf rankings…
“If another women’s golf program were to develop in the state of Georgia, what would be the most logical place for it to develop?” Bloodworth said in a June 1999 interview with The Augusta Chronicle. “It’s a great idea and a difficult thing to do.”
The program would need a coach, who would recruit players and draw up a Division I schedule at a time when women’s golf was almost a barren wasteland in the Southeast. More importantly, the program would need money.
Groups like the Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) and the Women’s Titleholders Golf Association of Augusta began holding fundraisers. In March 2000, Bloodworth said the program would need to raise $400,000 for the first four years. After a steering committee concluded the community would support a women’s team, the university started asking for funds. The amount received would determine if the team would become a reality. The response was overwhelming. Sixteen individuals or couples each donated $20,000, a total of $320,000. Laurie Ott, the EWGA committee chairwoman for fundraising, said her group and the CSRA Women’s Golf Association would partner to raise $40,000. Additional revenue began streaming in for the program. υ
With funding in place, plans for hiring a new coach were now in sight. In the fall, a press conference was held. After a few short years of planning, history was made. At a Sept. 20, 2000, gathering, the school introduced Shannon Hanson as the first Augusta State women’s golf coach. The 28-year-old Hanson, a former all-Southeastern Conference golfer at LSU, was hired away from Auburn, where she served as an assistant coach.
Hanson hit the ground running, signing Kelly McGurk and Casey Manion as the first Lady Jaguars. Later she would add a pair of Smiths in the unrelated Kelly and Lauren. England’s Nicky Perry and Ashley Phillips of Illinois rounded out the first Augusta State women’s golf roster for the 2001-02 season. N.C. State transfer Alli Henderson entered in the second semester.
The 2005-06 team won five of 10 tournaments, while Garrett Phillips, Emilie Geury and Lauren Smith each claimed individual titles.
In their first event, the Yale Fall Intercollegiate, the Lady Jaguars got off to a solid start, sitting eighth in the 17-team field after the first round. Lauren Smith opened with 3-over-par 73, followed by Perry (86), Manion (86), McGurk (88) and Kelly Smith (96). Augusta State dropped back on the second day, finishing the two-round tournament in 10th place. While the team failed to post another top-10 finish in its remaining six events, the program kept building for the future.
Augusta State received good news entering its second season. The NCAA reduced the Lady Jaguars’ two-year postseason ban to one year. Entering fall 2002, Augusta State had its motivation, along with a another top-notch player in Leah Hart. Hart and Lauren Smith immediately made their impacts known, finishing third and fourth, respectively, in the school’s first event of the season, the Memphis Intercollegiate Classic, where the Lady Jaguars placed fourth. Hart of Toowoomba, Australia, became the program’s first superstar, with Smith not far behind. Hart—who qualified for the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open (she missed the cut)—won three tournaments as a freshman, posted a 73.3 stroke average and was named the Division I All-Independent Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Smith was named to the All-Independent first team after posting four top-five showings and a 76.1 average.
After the season, the program took a big hit when Hanson resigned on Friday, May 23, 2003, to pursue a professional golf career. Under Hanson’s watch, the Lady Jaguars’ team scoring average dropped from 343 to 313 in two seasons. Three months after Hanson’s departure, the program suffered another blow when Hart transferred to Auburn.
The women’s team bounced back, though. With the addition of coach Trelle McCombs, the Jaguars began setting records. In October 2004, Augusta State won the Taco Bell Intercollegiate, its first team victory. Garrett Phillips took medalist honors, while Patti Hogeboom and Lauren May also finished in the top 10.
Natalie Wille has status on the LPGA’s developmental tour, while Kennedy is trying to find her way on the LPG’s developmental tour—the Symetra Tour.
The following year would bring more success. The 2005-06 team won five of 10 tournaments, while Phillips, Emilie Geury and Lauren Smith each claimed individual titles. The pinnacle moment arrived when the fifth-year program earned a spot in the NCAA East Regional, its first postseason appearance. While Augusta State missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament by four shots, Lauren Smith became the first Jaguar to advance.
The program didn’t have long to enjoy its success. Phillips, a three-time champion, left in the summer for Georgia, where she became an All-American as a senior. A few weeks after Phillips departed, McCombs announced she was leaving for Tulsa. In her three-year reign, the Jaguars won six events and finished as high as number 32 in the final Golfweek poll in 2006.
When Augusta’s Laura Coble, a member of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, was tapped to replace McCombs, the transition seemed to be seamless. But Coble stepped down after 15 months and was replaced in July 2008 with Kevin McPherson, a 28-year-old South Carolina native who brought a new energy to the team.
Like McCombs, McPherson would serve three years—he left to became the Augusta State men’s coach in 2011. During his run, the team won two events and also made its second postseason appearance, a 17th-place finish in the 2011 NCAA East Regional.
The ultimate goal is to see Jaguar headcovers out on the LPGA.
After McPherson’s departure, Kory Henkes was hired in August 2011. The program’s longest-tenured coach, she has taken the Jaguars to the next level. During her run, Henkes helped develop Casey Kennedy, a three-time champion who owns the career scoring average (74.66). In her four seasons, Henkes has guided the team to a pair of wins and a pair of NCAA Regional appearances. This season, she’s hoping her team can advance not only to the regionals, but to the national championship. And if the team can get there, anything can happen.
“It doesn’t have to be some big SEC school or ACC school. It can happen anywhere,” she says. “You just have to have the right players who believe in themselves and believe in their teammates. Anything is possible.”
Henkes says the future is bright for the women’s golf program. The core of the team is four sophomores—Caballer Hernani, Haigwood, Nyqvist and Yi. Henkes says she will continue to recruit “golf nerds,” players who want to focus on playing professionally one day.
Two of Henkes’s former players are trying to further their careers. Natalie Wille has status on the Ladies European Tour, while Kennedy is trying to find her way on the LPGA’s developmental tour—the Symetra Tour. Phillips is in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, a place Henkes says she hopes to see more players from the program.
“The ultimate goal,” she says, “is to see Jaguar headcovers out on the LPGA.”
This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.