April 16, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a practice round Sunday, Morgan Gonzales shot 68, an encouraging sign as she prepares for this weekend’s ACC women’s golf tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Such rounds have proven elusive for Gonzales, in practice or in competition, during her third year at the University of Virginia. She shot 69 at the Battle at the Beach in November and 70 in at the FSU Match-Up in February. For the year, though, her stroke average is 74.91, which ranks fourth on the Cavaliers.

“It’s been pretty up and down, to be honest,” said Gonzales, a junior from Chandler, Arizona. “But I’ve changed a lot of things in my swing, and I’m trying to change how I think about things mentally.”

As a freshman, Gonzales helped the Wahoos repeat as ACC champions and advance to the NCAA tournament’s quarterfinals. After a disappointing sophomore season and a frustrating summer of 2017, however, she decided changes were needed.

“I was in a funk,” Gonzales recalled. “My whole swing was all messed up, so I had to rework everything, and it really helped. But when you do that, you fall into this hole, and so you have to learn to pick yourself back up. I think that was probably the hardest thing for me: to look at a setback as an opportunity rather than viewing it as a complete failure.”

Working with her swing coach, Tim Cooke, who’s based in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Gonzales has focused on lessening the draw on her shots. (For a right-handed golfer, a draw curves from right to left.) Cooke played golf at UVA, as did his brother Simon.

Virginia head coach Kim Lewellen said she and Gonzales “realized that for her to take it a little further, there were some pins that she couldn’t access with the amount of draw that she had, and her misses would be a little bit further away from the hole than if we were to produce a little bit of a straighter ball flight, and a higher ball flight.”

Progress has been halting for Gonzales, a graduate of Phoenix Country Day, where she starred on the boys team, but “within the last month we’ve seen a big difference,” Lewellen said.

In the Cavaliers’ most recent tournament, April 6 and 7 at the Bryan National Collegiate in North Carolina, Gonzales led the team with a 54-hole total of 227. She’s eager for her revamped swing to pay consistent dividends.

“It could happen at any time,” said Gonzales, who in the summer of 2016 competed in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. “It was one of those things where it could click in a month or it could click in a year.

“Trying to stay positive about it has been really tough, but Coach is always like, `Look at the positives. Look at it as a process.’ I think I kind of embraced that recently, so I started playing a little bit better. Being patient was probably the one thing I needed to work on. Because I was just somebody that always wanted to win, and sometimes you have to just accept that this is what’s going to happen until you can win.”

Lewellen is confident a breakthrough is imminent for Gonzales.

“She’s coming along really well,” Lewellen said. “What’s interesting is, she’s always had a good short game, but through this, she’s had to rely even more on her short game, and it’s getting even better.

“When you go through some of these swing changes and your greens in regulation might go down a few, your short game has to be stronger. So once you get those greens in regulation back up, then you’ll also have that short game to fall back on.”

Gonzales, who was born in San Diego, moved to Arizona with her family when she was 11. She originally planned to attend college on the West Coast, but when she was a 10th-grader, a critical period in recruiting, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the family devoted much of its energy to that battle.

“So Morgan went off the map for a little while,” Lewellen said. “I didn’t really know where she was going or what she was doing.”

Gonzales, whose mother is now healthy, expanded the list of colleges that interested her and, as an 11th-grader, emailed Lewellen at UVA.

“I recognized the name immediately,” Lewellen recalled, “and that’s when I got back to her quickly and was thrilled to death that she was interested.”

Gonzales said: “I remember when I contacted Coach, she responded in, like, 20 minutes to my email, and it was a huge confidence boost for me. So we flew out here for a 24-hour trip, really, and I loved it.

“I was looking for a school that was really challenging academically, and also athletically, and this was the best fit for me.”

As a freshman, Gonzales joined a team led by fifth-year senior Lauren Coughlin and senior Elizabeth Szokol. They welcomed her immediately.

“The way they treated me, just having an upperclassman look at you and be like, `You’re good enough to be with us,’ it was just so helpful,” Gonzales said.

She remains close with both Coughlin and Szokol, who now compete professionally on the LPGA and Symetra tours, respectively. In fact, Gonzales was a bridesmaid, as was Szokol, when Coughlin and former UVA football player John Pond were married at the University Chapel on Jan. 20. (Lewellen’s husband, John, an Episcopal minister, officiated the wedding.)

“Even though I was only on the team with Morgan for my last year, she became one of my closest friends on the team,” Coughlin said. “She’s one of the funniest people I know and has the biggest heart.

“John and I were so glad that she was a part of our wedding. She became a big hit with my family at the wedding because she got my younger brother to dance.”

Coughlin and Pond follow Gonzales’ UVA career closely. “Even now, if I have a bad day or anything, they’ll shoot me a text,” Gonzales said. “Both of them.”

Gonzales is majoring in cognitive science, with a concentration in computer science. As a freshman, before she chose a major, she didn’t find her classes especially difficult. That’s no longer the case, she said with a laugh.

“Now when I travel [with the team], I wake up in the morning and I start my homework,” Gonzales said. Later in the day, “I’m the first person in the [team] van that opens their computer again to do their homework.

“For me, it’s been really academically challenging, just because I chose a harder path, probably, than I could have. But I think I needed the challenge in order to succeed.”

The ACC tournament starts Saturday and runs through Monday at the Grandover Resort. The 30th-ranked Cavaliers’ lineup will consist of juniors Gonzales, Anna Redding and Katharine Patrick, sophomore Julia Ford and freshman Beth Lillie. Redding leads the `Hoos with a stroke average of 73.00, and Lillie is second at 73.35.

In 2017, Virginia placed eighth at the ACC tournament. Lewellen expects a better showing this year.

“I think that if we have some good weather, this team can go out there and play phenomenal and win,” she said. “We’ve got the talent to do it. Every person on the team at some point this year has played phenomenal.”

This is a group that should peak in 2018-19, but Gonzales isn’t discount the Cavaliers’ chances this season.

“I think we have four or five girls that can bring a lot of different skill sets to the team, and last year we kind of lacked that,” Gonzales said. “I think a lot of us didn’t have enough confidence going into postseason, but I think we have that now. I’m really excited for postseason.”