BRADENTON, Fla. – Each night when they returned to the team hotel, Lauren Whyte and Hayley Davis allowed themselves three seconds to complain about their day.
“This is the day it’ll turn around,” Davis would try to convince her teammate. “I’m telling you, this is the day.”
But the message can be delivered only so many times before it eventually loses its effect.
Whyte’s high scores kept piling up at Concession: An opening 81. Followed by an 85. And then a 94. And an 82. Four days of stroke play, and not once did her score count toward Baylor’s team total.
Of the 84 players who finished four rounds here, Whyte was dead last, 54 over par, 57 shots behind winner Emma Talley.
“She was down,” head coach Jay Goble conceded.
“It’s really been hard for her,” Davis said.
The closest to Whyte in the individual standings was Duke freshman Lisa Maguire, who has endured her own struggles this season. And incredibly, both Baylor and Duke’s fates came down to those two players Tuesday during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Championship.
After more than an hour of clutch shots and big putts and steely nerves, Whyte prevailed with a bogey on the 24th hole of her match. On Wednesday afternoon, Baylor will play Stanford in the championship match. Neither school has ever won a national title.
That it somehow came down to Whyte and Maguire made this one of the most unforgettable days in college golf history.
Whyte, a freshman from St. Andrews, Scotland, didn’t even crack the team’s lineup until late March. She’s failed to shoot in the 60s during regular-season play, and then she had a few disastrous rounds here at Concession.
Even as her woes continued, Whyte reveled in the Bears’ stroke-play success that earned them a No. 3 seed for match play.
“I guess you need to deal with the bad to come out the best,” Davis said of her teammate. “She’s probably been through the worst.”
Earlier Tuesday, in the quarterfinals against Tennessee’s Hannah Pietila, Whyte dropped the opening four holes during a 4-and-2 loss.
Sent out first again in the afternoon semifinals, Whyte traded bogeys with Maguire and was 2 down at the turn. She won the 10th, and then the 12th, and the 13th and 15th, too. By the time she stood on the tee of the par-5 17th hole, she had a 2-up lead with two to play.
That advantage disappeared quickly. She promptly tugged her tee shot into the water, leading to a bogey and lost hole. And then on 18, her tee ball was unplayable in a bush, and the ensuing double bogey sent her match into extras.
The turning point in overtime came at the 22nd hole, the par-5 13th. In good position off the tee, Whyte drilled a 3-wood that trickled into a greenside bunker, leaving her an awkward 60-yard shot. Her third shot came out too hot and scooted over the green, into a valley.
The hole is nicknamed “blackjack”, because a member once made 21 there.
LPGA player Jessica Korda tweeted, “I wouldn’t want that chip... It’s hard.”
“Heck no,” Brittany Lincicome replied. “I’ve been there hahaha.”
“A lot of people would just pack it in and take the loss there,” said Goble, but Whyte de-lofted her 60-degree lob wedge and bumped her fourth shot into the bank. The ball rolled out to 5 feet. She made the par putt, ho-hum, and moved on to the next.
“She stepped up and delivered,” Goble said, beaming.
A couple of solid drives and 7-irons over the next two holes – and an ill-timed block on the 24th hole by Maguire – touched off a raucous celebration by Baylor.
“She’s so tough,” fellow freshman Dylan Kim said of Whyte. “She has such a great mind and she’s a fighter. We know how hard she’s been trying.”
Added Davis: “That’s the best golf I’ve ever seen her play. It says a lot about her that she could do that on that stage.”
On the opposite side was Maguire, who struggled mightily all season and found herself in an uncomfortable position, with everything riding on her success or failure.
With her team eliminated, Maguire stared blankly into the woods. Her twin sister, Leona, the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, consoled her from a few feet away.
“It’s always tough to take a loss,” Lisa would say later, barely above a whisper, “but to lose it this way was especially so.”
Maguire and Duke head coach Dan Brooks have labored through a swing change since she arrived on campus in late August. Basically, they’re trying to get Maguire to utilize her lower body more to increase her distance. The results haven’t been pretty – she’s ranked outside the top 400 individually, and she had only one top 20 and a 77.07 scoring average in 10 starts.
“Anything she hasn’t accomplished this year,” Brooks said, “is because I messed with her golf swing.”
Still, Brooks saw signs of progress, such as Maguire’s bunker shot on the 23rd hole, when she had little green to work with and an opponent only 25 feet away for birdie. She splashed out to a few feet.
“She went from being a player on the periphery,” Brooks said, “to one who had everything at stake. I’m very proud of her. That showed a lot of guts.”
But this was Whyte’s moment, after a miserable five-day stay here at Concession.
Goble’s confidence in his No. 5 player never wavered, mostly because of Whyte’s poise and confidence.
“It just makes you believe that she’ll hit the shots,” he said.
And she did, spectacularly, to put Baylor on the brink of a national title.
“Today,” Whyte said with a smile, “was me playing my part.”