Elizabeth Mallett’s final college golf tournament will begin on Friday in Eugene, Ore., on the same coast where she thought her journey in America would begin. That was before she found out that Stanford, long her dream school, no longer had a place for her.
Mallett, a senior at North Carolina, didn’t know much about American colleges and universities when she was growing up in England in a town a few hours’ drive north of London. She knew about Tiger Woods, though, and knew that he’d gone to Stanford. So that was enough for her, too.
She made a name for herself in the youth golf scene in England – enough of one that Stanford, she said, eventually offered her a place on its women’s golf team. And then she received a call one day from Stanford and was told, she said, that “they didn’t really want me anymore.”
It was, as Mallett recently described it, “a sticky situation.” She’d never been to America, knew virtually nothing about college golf programs and for a while didn’t know what her next step would be.
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“I was completely left in the dark,” Mallett said.
Ultimately the disappointment subsided. The forced detour from Stanford has benefited Mallett and UNC both.
A little more than four years ago, when she was figuring out her options after receiving that call from Stanford, Mallett had never heard of UNC. Now she has helped lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA championships, which begin on Friday at the Eugene Country Club.
“She worked out well,” Jan Mann, the Tar Heels coach, said of Mallett, who finished in ninth place individually last week at an NCAA regional.
That regional happened to be at Stanford, though Mallett said she didn’t find symbolism in the location. She was focused, instead, on helping the Tar Heels recover from a sluggish opening-round performance that had them in 15th place after Day 1.
UNC ascended into sixth place in the second round of the tournament, and then finished in fourth. That was good enough to send the Tar Heels, who entered the tournament as a relatively high No. 12 seed, into the national championships for the third time under Mann, who is in her seventh season at UNC.
This is UNC’s first trip to the nationals since 2012.
And so “it’s about time,” Mann said earlier this week, sitting in her office. This has been something of a frustrating, inconsistent season for UNC, with Mann waiting for her players to realize their potential – all the while hoping that they eventually would.
Still, the outlook was somewhat bleak after UNC found itself in 15th place after the first round of the regional. Mann spoke with her team after that round, trying to rally some faith. Afterward, the players spent a while alone with themselves, trying to muster a mental rally.
What followed might have been UNC’s best performance of the season. Leslie Cloots, a junior from Belgium, was instrumental in the Tar Heels’ resurgence. And so, too, was Mallett, who in the final round shot a 1-under 70, which included three birdies and an eagle.
Overall, it was the kind of showing Mann thought she’d see throughout the regular season.
“We never lost sight of the possibility of making it to Eugene,” she said. “And we had faith that they would.”
The Tar Heels will be underdogs at nationals, just as they were last week at regionals. Even so there is no sense of contentment or complacency, Mann said, no notion of being merely happy to be making the trip out west.
We know as a team, even though our seed is a lower seed, we are confident that we can play with the best.
UNC coach Jan Mann
In women’s golf, UNC has never finished better than seventh in an NCAA championship. And that finish came in 2009. Four other times, three of them during the 1990s, UNC finished eighth nationally. For this particular group of players, the NCAA championship will be a new experience.
“They’re obviously very happy to be going to Eugene and extending our season,” Mann said. “But we want more. We know as a team, even though our seed is a lower seed, we are confident that we can play with the best.”
Mallett, at least, had been planning on the season lasting this long. She booked a flight back to England for May 27 – the day after the NCAA championships end. Her hope is that her days are occupied until then with the team, and school, she found amid circumstances that seemed unlucky at the time.
After her opportunity at Stanford fell through, Mallett said she contacted every American college and university with a Division I women’s golf program. She sent emails to those schools, and also wrote to some Division II schools just hoping to hear back, she said, and “just looking for anything.”
The first time she visited America was on a recruiting visit to Florida State and Tulane. She went from Tallahassee, Fla., to New Orleans and was in the airport on her way back to England when her mom contacted her with some news.
One of the schools that hadn’t replied at first to her inquiry finally did. It was UNC. Mann told Mallett she might have a spot for her in Chapel Hill.
“But she wasn’t quite sure if she did have a space yet,” Mallett said, “because it was contingent on whether another girl could make the SAT score. And she couldn’t, so here I am.”
It has, as Mann said, worked out well for both parties, and Mallett’s long college journey isn’t quite over yet.