ATLANTA – The morning after she lost the NCAA Championship, Hayley Davis didn’t lock herself in her hotel room, or console her Baylor teammates, or dwell on what could have been. She boarded a flight to Australia.
Technically, it was a pre-scheduled study abroad program for her human health performance and recreational services major, but it proved to be the perfect antidote to the most traumatic moment of her career.
College golf fans won’t soon forget Davis.
The 22-year-old was the heart and soul of a Baylor team that no one expected to reach the NCAA finals against Stanford. She later became the focal point of the Bears’ title pursuit, after the first four singles matches split at two points apiece at Concession Golf Club.
Clinging to a 1-up lead over Stanford’s Mariah Stackhouse, Davis authored one of the most memorable shots in college golf history, after her drive on the 16th hole kicked back into the hazard after she took an aggressive line off the tee.
“When I was walking up to the ball,” she said Monday, “I didn’t know where it was. It could have been in the water; it could have been anywhere. But as soon as I saw it, I said to myself: Wow, I’ve been given a chance here, and I can take it.
“The only shot I could even think about was the 8-iron at the hole. It wasn’t even an option to chip out or play right of the pin. I kind of love those shots where you’re like, ummmm, I don’t know what’s going to happen here.”
The ball was above her feet. The tall fescue grass was right in front of her. Her feet were sinking in the mud. And she struck it absolutely perfectly, the ball landing softly in the middle of the green, scaring the hole and settling 7 feet past the cup. The birdie gave her what seemed like an insurmountable 2-up lead with two to play.
“It was the best shot I’ve ever seen,” Baylor coach Jay Goble said. “Under the circumstances, to be able to pull off a shot like that, it truly shows how unreal she is. I think sometimes she doesn’t even realize that she could be the best there is out there, if she really wanted it.”
But the match was far from over. Stackhouse won the 17th with a two-putt birdie. She won the 18th too, with a dramatic 15-footer, to force overtime.
The match appeared destined for a second playoff hole. Then Davis shoved a 4-foot par putt.
Stanford’s players, gathered behind the green, shrieked with joy. Baylor’s gasped in disbelief. The Bears’ team leader had faltered, and now she was broken, drifting back toward the woods and collapsing onto the ground in tears.
After a half hour, Davis emerged and gave an emotional interview. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it completely,” she said.
It all happened so fast, and soon the players went their separate ways. The night of the NCAA finals, Davis’ mother booked the flight to Australia. The next morning, Davis was gone.
“The best thing probably anybody could do,” Goble said.
Davis traveled around the country, camping on the beach for three weeks. She brought her golf clubs, because she was traveling straight from NCAAs, but never took them out of their travel case. Surrounded by 20 other students from Baylor and Texas A&M, she was just a normal 22-year-old. The group knew nothing of the recent heartbreak she had endured.
Back home, no one could get ahold of Davis either – the Wi-Fi service was too spotty. For the better part of three weeks, she was completely off the grid.
“It was really hard for me to deal with,” she said. “Getting away from everything kind of helped me be able to talk about it and properly reflect and understand what had really happened.”
Goble checked in only once or twice during the summer, but he wasn’t concerned about the player who had single-handedly altered the trajectory of the program during her four years in school.
“She was the best person in the world to handle that,” he said. “For a lot of other people, that would probably destroy them. For Hayley, it’s only going to make her better. She’s different than everybody else.”
It wasn’t until Davis returned to Waco in mid-July, after the first stage of LPGA Q-School, that she finally talked with Goble about the events at Concession, about how many messages they had received from those in the community. By that point, Davis had come to appreciate the bigger picture, that underdog Baylor had its best season in program history and nearly won an NCAA title.
Davis is back with the Bears now, but in a different role, as a student assistant. With only six hours left to complete her degree in the spring, she has been working out with the team on Mondays and Thursdays and then practicing on Fridays as she tries to keep her game sharp for the final stage of Q-School.
The Bears could use her guidance. Reeling from the loss of All-American sophomore Dylan Kim, who recently underwent hip surgery and is likely out for the season, they have yet to finish inside the top 10. Here at the East Lake Cup, Baylor is ranked 70th; the other three women’s teams are all in the top six.
“Hayley changes the atmosphere for our team when she’s in the room,” Goble said. “They practice better. They work out better. They’re in a more competitive frame of mind.”
More than that extra dose of aggressiveness, Davis also brings an added level of perspective. After all, she faced the most pressure possible in college golf: Playing for herself, her family, her teammates, her school, she won and lost the decisive match. She will carry that experience with her forever.
“I always wanted to be a part of something historic,” she said, “and to have this happen during my senior year, during my final semester, was unbelievable. I’m better for it.”