By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2015, a match-play component will be added to the NCAA women’s golf championships, much to the delight of Lauren Diaz-Yi.
“It’s definitely my favorite form of golf,” Diaz-Yi said.
That has made this California native’s first year at UVa more challenging. The Cavaliers compete in stroke-play tournaments, and Diaz-Yi has turned in several forgettable rounds as a freshman. But as Virginia heads into the NCAA championships, she’s playing her best golf as a collegian.
“She’s really peaking towards the end of the year, which is what we want,” UVa coach Kim Lewellen said. “That’s what I love to see. I would say her game right now is probably as good as I’ve ever seen it.”
Diaz-Yi credits Lewellen and assistant coach Brian Bailie.
“They really do a great job of targeting certain things I need to work on and really drilling a lot on those things and getting me to another level,” Diaz-Yi said this week. “And they don’t try to change too many things, which I also like, because I’m not big on changing drastically on things.”
The 20th-ranked Wahoos leave Saturday for Tulsa, Okla., where they will join 23 other teams at the Tulsa Country Club for the NCAA championships, which start Tuesday and run through next Friday.
Virginia qualified by placing sixth at the 54-hole NCAA East Regional in Tallahassee, Fla.
“She’s a key component for our success, and we knew that when she arrived,” Lewellen said of Diaz-Yi. “We had lost [All-American] Brittany Altomare from last year, who was a phenomenal player. Lauren has come in and stepped into those shoes a little bit.”
For Diaz-Yi, who’s from Thousand Oaks, Calif., near Malibu, the NCAA championships will mark her return to the state in which she recorded her greatest triumph as a golfer. Late last June, she defeated Doris Chen 10-and-9 in the 36-hole final of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship in Norman, Okla.
Her margin of victory was the largest in the tournament’s 37-year history.
“It was very surreal,” Diaz-Yi recalled this week. “I feel like it still hasn’t hit me completely, but it was definitely some of the best golf I’ve played. During that whole week I played, I think, almost 200 holes, and it was just a very long, tedious, mentally grinding process. But I had a great caddy that week that really helped me through it, and I just did a lot of breathing when I was playing to calm my nerves.”
Lewellen said: “Lauren did very, very well in match play when she was a junior player. Obviously with collegiate golf, it’s all stroke play. What we’ve done this year is work with her on the importance of one stroke and minimizing the damage [on a bad hole].
“She’s very competitive, which we love, but you sometimes need to harness that in order to be OK with a bogey. You know she’s going to get a lot of birdies, because she’s that good a player.”
Diaz-Yi called herself a risk-taker and said in match play she can have more of a “go-get-it, you-have-nothing-to-lose mentality.” That doesn’t always lead to success in stroke play, where a bad hole can ruin an otherwise good round.
Lewellen said Diaz-Yi’s competitive streak “can lead to some aggressive decision-making. But when every stroke counts, there’s a balance you have to strike there.”
Diaz-Yi has worked hard to cut down, she said, on “those unnecessary bogeys and double-bogeys, and it’s helped tremendously with my stroke average.”
Her average of 75.30 ranks fourth on the team, behind Coughlin (74.85), junior Briana Mao (75.10) and senior Brightwell (75.14).
Diaz-Yi said: “I really improved drastically from first semester to second semester, and I feel like I keep improving as well.”
For an academically minded golfer, Diaz-Yi said, the most attractive college options on the West Coast are UCLA, USC and Stanford. She wanted to branch out, Diaz-Yi said, so “I decided to look at here, Duke and Northwestern, and I loved UVa the best out of all of them.”
After Lewellen spotted her at a junior tournament, Diaz-Yi took an unofficial visit to UVa in the summer of 2011. She committed to Virginia as a junior at Westlake High School, a decision that looks better to her all the time.
“From a student standpoint, it’s a fantastic school,” Diaz-Yi said. “I fell in love with UVa the first I stepped on [Grounds]. I knew I wanted to come here when I visited, and it didn’t disappoint when I did end up attending school.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends, and there’s a lot of good classes that are offered that I really enjoy as well.
“From the golf aspect, I don’t think I could have picked a better school. The coaches are great, my team is amazing, and they really help me to elevate my game to another level.”
As for living in Virginia, Diaz-Yi said the “weather’s definitely a big factor, because there’s no snow in California, but I really enjoyed adjusting to it and the different seasons. It’s nice to see fall and then winter and then spring. So I really like it a lot. Humidity is not my favorite thing, but that’s OK.”
Also an accomplished pianist and violinist, Diaz-Yi plans to major in media studies at UVa, with a concentration in film. For the next couple of months, though, golf will take precedence over schoolwork, starting with the NCAA championships.
The Cavaliers placed fourth at the NCAAs in 2011 and again in ’12. They appear to be peaking at the right time again this spring.
“The players really like postseason play,” Lewellen said. “As a coach, in the fall I usually play a lot of different people. I’ll put in different folks to see how they do in competition. It can appear our rankings aren’t very good in the fall, but that’s because I play a lot of people.
“We usually get significantly better in the spring. We appear to have really improved, but a lot of times I think it’s just us figuring out who the players are going to be for postseason.”