You don't know how great it is to be a college golfer until you (briefly) aren't one
“Have you seen your grades yet?”
I told my head coach at Notre Dame, John Handrigan, I hadn’t. I was so caught up with winter break and playing tournaments that I hadn’t checked to see where I stood after finals. I went into my exams well aware that it hadn’t been a stellar semester, but I believed I had done enough to get by.
“You’re not eligible to play next semester,” he said.
It was difficult to hear, and it didn’t fully sink in for a while. I couldn’t picture myself not traveling with the team or getting to play in my favorite tournaments like the Schenkel Invitational, one of college golf’s top events, or the ACC Championship. When the team left for its first spring event, I felt awful. I should be going, but I had only myself to blame. Just because I got into school to play golf didn’t mean I could skate academically, and I learned that the hard way.
When I was looking at colleges, golf offered me opportunities that my academic résumé wouldn’t have. I was a standout junior golfer in New England who got A’s and B’s in school. My Massachusetts high school team won the Division II state tournament my junior year, and I won the individual title. The next summer I won the Rhode Island Amateur. I was playing really well when it mattered most. But even after committing to play at Notre Dame, I had to retake my SATs a handful of times before my acceptance was final. In the back of my mind, I knew school would be hard, but I was a teenager focused on golf.
At Notre Dame, where I enrolled as a college golfer in the fall of 2017, I had played pretty well before becoming ineligible. I started every tournament during my first year and a half. My freshman year, I finished third in our home tournament and had a scoring average of 72.76 with 18 rounds of par or better. In the summer of 2018, I was medalist at my U.S. Amateur qualifier. I made it to the Round of 32 at Pebble Beach before losing to the former U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad. Getting to tee it up at one of the world’s greatest courses in the highest-ranked amateur event was incredible. I felt really good about my game heading back to school for my sophomore year.
Ask any student athlete, and he or she will tell you how many hours playing a sport takes up and how difficult it is to manage your time. I wasn’t used to playing competitively for 10 hours a day during tournaments. Lugging your bag around for that timespan in 85-degree weather takes a toll, but it’s more mentally exhausting than physically draining. It’s hard to take the books out during a tournament, especially after a 36-hole day. You’re so focused on trying to do well on the course, the last thing you want to do is tackle a problem set.
A typical day on campus for me includes an early morning workout, then straight to class, an advisor meeting, more class, golf practice and then more studying. A lot of times I don’t get back to my room until midnight, and then it’s the same thing the next day. You get into a rhythm, but it’s hard when you have hours of homework each night and still need to get enough sleep to do it all again in the morning.
As a member of the Notre Dame golf team, I get to play some of the greatest courses in the country—like practice rounds at Augusta National, Seminole and MacArthur—but I’m still figuring out how to balance it all. As a freshman, I traveled 12 straight weekends in a row from the end of January to the middle of April. During those practice trips and tournaments, I found it difficult to keep up with my classes. Multiply each class you’re taking by all the lectures you’re missing, and it starts to add up. Sitting in an airport trying to make up work on material you weren’t there to learn in class can get frustrating pretty quickly. I give my teammates credit for performing at the highest level on the course and in the classroom. Even so, when my teammates heard about my situation, they were supportive. It’s nice to have guys who understand what you’re going through.
As for my parents, I was nervous to tell them, afraid they’d be mad or disappointed, but they were pretty understanding. Surprised, sure, but they know college can be an adjustment for any kid, let alone a student athlete. Having their support motivated me to get my grades back on track. I didn’t want to let them down, or myself. Believe me, I realize not everyone gets to play Division I golf at a school like Notre Dame. It was an amazing opportunity, and I couldn’t afford to let it slip away.
Sitting out the 2019 spring semester during my sophomore year gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to be a typical student. I was able to see my friends in the dorm during weekends, and I met a lot of new people, which was nice. Still, I missed the atmosphere of tournament golf. It killed me to be refreshing Golfstat.com every five minutes for updates of my teammates’ live tournament scores when I knew I could be out there helping them. When we didn’t make regionals last spring, I felt even more pressure to work my way back so I could help the team.
Notre Dame has everything you need to be successful as a golfer. We have a new indoor putting green, hitting bays and a TrackMan launch monitor. There’s access to pretty much everything to get better in the winter months. We play at the Warren Golf Course, which is conveniently on campus and considered one of the top collegiate courses in the country. But now that I was ineligible, I was about to find out how much this place also offered to help me be successful as a student and person.
School provided a lot of great resources to get me on the right path. I had tutors and other advisors, and I’ve been put in study hall, which allows me to do the work without any distractions or excuses. I had to work my butt off in school last spring to be eligible again. Everyone from my coaches to my advisors wanted to see me succeed, which gave me hope.
By the time the spring semester was over, I was happy to return home to Massachusetts and play in some summer tournaments. I was eager to compete, and I started the summer off strong when I finished second at the Monroe Invitational, one of the oldest amateur events in the country. Shortly after, I received a text from Coach Handrigan informing me that all my hard work in the classroom had paid off. My GPA was back over 2.0, and I’d be eligible to play in the fall. That news lifted my spirits for the rest of summer. I was the medalist in my U.S. Amateur qualifier and came in second in the Providence Open. I finished the summer by playing in the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. I didn’t play great, but I knew my game was in a good shape heading into the fall season.
What came next was a historic fall season for the Irish. The first tournament we played was the Badger Invitational in Wisconsin. I hadn’t played for Notre Dame as a college golfer in 11 months. I was nervous but genuinely happy to be back competing with my teammates. We were tied for the lead heading into the final round and posted 14 under par to win by 14 strokes. It was a great way to come back.
The next week, we won Northwestern’s event. It was the second time in program history that we won back-to-back events. Two weeks later we won our home tournament by one shot in a strong field. It came down to a par putt I had on the 18th green. Then, at our last event, the Quail Valley Intercollegiate in Vero Beach, Fla, we had a two-shot lead going into the last round. One of our freshmen birdied the last hole to secure the win. It capped off an unforgettable semester on the course, winning four out of our five events.
My primary goal right now is to keep my grades up. I’m balancing school and golf a lot better than I was before. I’m getting my work done on time, being more productive and sticking to a homework schedule that works for me. I left Notre Dame’s business school my sophomore year and am now a Film and Television major. I’m a lot more engaged in my classes, which is helping me keep my grades up. I’ve learned the basics of film and the history of television, which is really interesting. I can definitely see myself working on motion pictures if a career in golf doesn’t work out. I know I let a lot of people down when I became ineligible. It was awkward when people asked me why I wasn’t in the lineup, and I don’t want that to happen again.
I used to devote all of my energy to the things that would help me become a professional golfer. A semester away from competing forced me to slow down and rethink that approach. Now it’s about keeping my grades up and realizing how a Notre Dame degree can change my life. —With Claire Rogers