April 12, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The ACC women’s golf tournament begins Friday at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., and both of University of Virginia head coach Kim Lewellen‘s special assistants will be on hand.
Their roles, however, differ dramatically, as do their sizes.
“Ginny’s like this,” Lewellen said, holding out her hands and laughing, “and John Pond is like this.”
Ginny is the nickname of assistant coach Calle Nielson‘s 11-pound puppy, whose proper name, naturally, is Virginia.
Pond is a former UVA football player who as a fifth-year senior last season was listed at 330 pounds. The longtime boyfriend of Lauren Coughlin, Lewellen’s No. 1 golfer, Pond is serving as the team manager this semester.
He traveled with the Cavaliers to their past two tournaments. They placed second at the first, the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and then won the second, the Bryan National Collegiate in Browns Summit, N.C.
“We’ve had our top two finishes with him around,” Lewellen said, “so I keep saying, `Come on, come on, come on!’ “
Pond prefers to call himself the team’s “operations intern,” Coughlin said, smiling. Whatever his title, Lewellen said, Pond has been an asset to the team.
“It’s not only that we’ve known him and we’re comfortable with him, but he’s very sports-minded,” Lewellen said. “He’s always out there to help with our equipment and make sure that everything is set where it needs to go, so the coaches can do their job.”
At tournaments, Pond “says the right things at the right time to some of the girls as they’re coming off the course and they’ve had a bad round,” Lewellen said. “He knows what to say and what not to say, and that can be really helpful.”
When she joined Lewellen’s staff in 2014, Nielson promised the players she’d get a puppy if the Cavaliers won the ACC title in 2015, and they did so in Greensboro.
Ginny, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel-poodle mix, was born last fall, and Nielson, a former UVA golfer, has had the puppy since Thanksgiving. The original plan was for Nielson to come home with a male puppy that the players were going to name T.J., in honor of Thomas Jefferson.
“But I didn’t love any of the boys that I saw, so I ended up with a girl,” Nielson said.
Nielson, a 2011 graduate of UVA, said she brings her pooch to the team’s practice at Birdwood Golf Course about once a week.
“She’s very much a companion dog,” Nielson said. “She loves the girls. She goes up to them and turns over and says, `Rub my belly.’ She’s very spoiled.”
Were Ginny at practice more often, she might affect the players’ focus, Coughlin said, because “you just want to go and hold her and play with her. But during the tournaments, it’s nice to have that distraction. In practice you have to be a little more focused on what you’re doing right then, but when we’re playing, it’s kind of an escape, so you can think about something [other than the tournament].”
Ginny traveled to Hilton Head Island with the team for the Rucker Intercollegiate. “We played very well there, and she’ll be at ACCs,” Lewellen said. “Calle’s parents come and look after her and then bring her in as we finish. So it’s really neat.”
This is Lewellen’s ninth year at UVA, where her teams consistently have ranked among the ACC’s elite. For all their success, however, the Wahoos had never won the ACC tournament before breaking through last year.
At Sedgefield Country Club, the `Hoos completed the 54-hole event in 27-under 837, the lowest score in ACC tournament history. Virginia finished 26 strokes ahead of runner-up Duke.
The championship has had a positive effect on her players, Lewellen said.
“We’ve been so close so many times,” she said, “so to finally have brought a championship back to Virginia, and to do it in the magnitude that they did it, it’s given them a lot of confidence. And I think that helps going into this championship. They know that they can do it.
“The ACC is strong. There’s some great teams [in the league], but when we’ve come head to head, we have beaten every team at some point this year.”
Coughlin said: “Everyone’s in a good place in their mind, I think. Everybody’s happy, not super-stressed about golf or anything else. We’re looking forward to ACCs.”
Of Virginia’s regulars, three are familiar with Sedgefield: Coughlin, who’s a graduate student; senior Elizabeth Szokol; and junior Lauren Diaz-Yi. Rounding out the lineup are freshmen Morgan Gonzales and Anna Redding.
“It’s a tough course,” Lewellen said of Sedgefield, which also hosts the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship each August. “You do need to be able to manage it. It helps that [the upperclassmen have] done it, so Calle and I can spend some times with the first-years to help them navigate it.”
Coughlin leads the Cavaliers with a 72.71-stroke average. Szokol is second at 73.79 and Diaz-Yi is third at 74.44.
Szokol transferred from Northwestern to UVA after the 2013-14 academic year. She finished in the top 10 at each of Virginia’s past two tourneys.
“She’s made a big impact on our program,” Lewellen said. “She’s a strong player, and her performing well is a key to us winning the championship.”
Coughlin, a graduate of Hickory High School in Chesapeake, arrived at UVA in the summer of 2011 with the understanding that she would redshirt as a freshman.
“She needed to get older, she needed to get stronger, she needed to mature,” Lewellen said. “But the fundamentals were there, and the golf IQ was there, more than anything. So she did have all of the tools. Our plan from the get-go was to have her go five years. But there were many times her first year when she was playing well and I wondered: Are we going to hold on to this plan? And I had to bite my tongue.”
Coughlin played in only two spring tournaments for Virginia as a redshirt freshman in 2012-13, but the next season she led the team in stroke average (74.61) and placed fifth at the ACC tournament.
As a redshirt junior, she set the program’s single-round scoring record, with a 7-under 65 at the UCF Challenge, and was named to the All-ACC team. This season she’s posted rounds of 66, 67, 68 and 69 en route to five top-10 finishes. Twice she’s finished as the individual runner-up.
Coughlin, who’ll compete this summer at the LPGA Qualifying School, admits she didn’t necessarily envision such an illustrious college career when she enrolled at the University.
“When I came in, I had never really had the aspirations of playing professionally,” Coughlin said. “I don’t think I ever really thought I would get good enough to where it would be worth it to try. And so this year I’ve gone to kind of a whole `nother level, so it’s definitely going to be worth it for me to at least give it a go for a little bit.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology last year, Coughlin enrolled in the Curry School of Education. She’s completing a master’s of higher education, with a concentration in intercollegiate athletic administration.
“I think in the long run her heart belongs in coaching and administration,” Lewellen said, but she believes Coughlin will succeed as a pro golfer first.
“She’s not got only the tools — she’s gotten stronger — but she’s got a great golf IQ,” Lewellen said. “She can manage courses really well. She doesn’t get uptight when things aren’t going well. She’s very solution-oriented instead of being emotional, all of those things that really good players and Tour players have.”
That she’s in the twilight of her college career has dawned on Coughlin. “It’s getting very stressful,” she said, “knowing I’m going to be in the real world in a month, a month and a half or so.”
A little play time with Ginny helps Coughlin relieve the pressure. Pond, of course, is happy to help too.
“He’s always very positive,” Coughlin said. “He’s a big supporter of all of us. He has so much fun when he’s out there.”