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The grinders who saved a college golf team

Two women combined to shoot 434 in a single round—and became the heroes of this D-III program
May 26, 2023

"I didn't even know the rules. I was pretty much thrown to the wolves. In the nicest way possible. They were nice wolves. But I was shoved out there."
—Maycee Kay Aycock

On April 26, at the Carolina Country Club in Spartanburg, S.C., Maycee Kay Aycock and Sarah Marshall cried together in a bathroom. It was a cold, rainy morning, they had just made the turn, and the fatigue from three days of play at the USA South Conference Championship had finally taken its toll. When they overheard another player call them "embarrassing," something cracked. This is rock bottom, they thought. How can it get worse?

It was there that a woman found them crying. Her daughter played for another team, but she could sense they needed a surrogate mother.

"Don't listen to the mean girls," she said. "You two are my heroes. You're the only ones out here having fun."

When the tears ran their course, they realized she was right. When they weren’t having an emotional breakdown, they were having fun. More than that, they had a purpose. Yes, they were playing some truly terrible golf—the kind that’s almost too bad to believe—but they were playing terrible golf for their team, and their conference.

They dried their eyes. There were nine holes still to play and a season to finish. They walked out of the bathroom together, back into the rain.

How the hell does a college golfer shoot 276 in a single round?

That’s the kind of question you ask when you happen to be a golf writer with a group of friends who are even more obsessed than you; the kind of freaks who will vanish from the group chat on a frankly worrying internet deep dive, digging up scores from various college tournaments, and return hours later armed with a name from tiny Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., and that staggering score.

And when you get done staring at the number, just for the hell of it you might send an email to the Meredith coach, practically apologetic but thinking maybe, maybe, there’s a story. And a phone call or two later, you might be asking a different question:

How the hell does a college golfer shoot 276 in a single round … and save her team?

The email went out to the roughly 1,400 members of the student body at Meredith College on Feb. 7 at 8:06 a.m., with the subject line "Calling all Golfers!"

Looking for Meredith Golfers! Join the Avenging Angels Golf Team for a semester of fun, stress-free, golf events. Looking for golfers able to give 8-10 hours per week into practice and training. Some experience is required in knowing how to get around the golf course and basic golf etiquette for tournaments. Class absences are excused with your proper notification of professors. Medical clearance through the training staff is required and you will be guided in that process …

Sincerely,
Coach Jimmy Hamilton

Up to that point, the season had taken on the rhythms of a recurring nightmare. Hamilton is the Director of Instruction at The Golf Academy at Wildwood Green and a former player at the University of Maryland who six years ago helped put together a club team at Meredith College, a Division III women's college. Two years later, the NCAA sanctioned them as a varsity sport, but now, in Hamilton’s fourth season at the helm, bad luck had struck so often that the team’s future was in doubt.

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Desperate times called for desperate measures for Meredith women's coach Jimmy Hamilton as he sent an open letter to the student body hoping to find anybody to fill out the roster. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Hamilton)

On some level, this wasn't exactly unheard of; Hamilton knew that Division III golf bears a lot more similarity to high school golf than it does to Division I—academics are paramount, and team practices are rare—and roster fluctuations happen. Still, it had never been quite this dire.

Hamilton started the academic year with six players. Four players are required to complete a tournament roster, so the number felt safe. The deluge started when his star, a freshman, re-aggravated a shoulder injury in her first tournament and needed surgery. Then a senior had to leave for family reasons. Then a freshman quit due to stress. Down to three, Hamilton managed to recruit a tennis player to join the team for the rest of the fall events, and Meredith survived through the winter break. The reprieve didn’t last long—the tennis player couldn't continue in the spring, and one of his remaining juniors came down with mononucleosis. With two weeks to go until his first spring tournament, Hamilton's active roster was down to two.

At that point, the team had only played two events, and they needed three more to qualify for the conference championship. "We would have been on some kind of probation going forward as far as being a qualified NCAA team," Hamilton said over the phone when asked the consequences of missing the event.

There was another wrinkle, too—the USA South Conference needed six teams to earn an automatic qualifying bid to the Division III championship, and to lose Meredith would mean losing a valuable cushion that they had worked hard to establish.

With no better option, Hamilton and his Athletic Director decided to send the email to the college’s undergrads. Their hopes weren't high, but within a few hours, they had a bite: Maycee Kay Aycock wrote that she and her roommate might be interested. Hamilton asked about her experience, and the answers weren't ideal. She had never played 18 holes before, and no, she didn't own clubs.

A few hours later, Sarah Marshall emailed. Hamilton was thrilled to learn that she did have clubs. Like Aycock, though, she had never played anything close to a full round of golf.

"I did not even know what type of pain was about to be inflicted on me."
—Maycee Kay Aycock

To describe Maycee Kay Aycock, you come back to words like "spitfire" and “dynamo.” Small and lively with an east North Carolina accent, she's the kind of person for whom no subject is out of bounds—within a few minutes of meeting me on a Zoom call, for instance, we were talking about the logistics of lip flips (if you had to look it up, join the club). She was originally supposed to play soccer at Meredith, but hip surgery ended that, leaving her with a lot of energy and no outlet. She's 20, from a town called Whitakers, and though her original plan was to major in bio with a focus in genetics, she's making the switch to public relations, with a double minor in bio and political science.

"I like talking to people, so there you go," she explained.

Her grandfather James Bass played golf, and he was the one who pushed her to take a golf PE class this past fall; not only was it a lifetime sport, he argued, but it could be valuable in the business world. She took his advice and liked the class. She even thought about buying clubs for Christmas, but realized that she had nobody to play with. When the email from Hamilton came, she thought, This is it. This is where I'm getting my clubs.

She brought her roommate to the meeting—the roommate later lost interest—and the only other person in attendance was Sarah Marshall. The pitch from Coach Hamilton was simple: you practice on your own, and he'd give them instruction at events or at his club if they had free time. Maycee had almost none; she nannies every day after class for a rotating cast of seven or eight families, often working until 10 p.m. to put herself through school. “I'm on my own in the world," she told me, only half-joking.

Within a week, Maycee Kay got word that she'd made the team. "They hadn't even seen me swing," she said. "They're just like, 'you made it.' They told me that in a week, I’d be getting in a van to go play."

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Maycee Kay Aycock didn't even have golf clubs when she volunteered to become part of the Meredith team. (Photo courtesy of Maycee Kay Aycock)

She called her grandfather, who was happy to buy her clubs. But the lack of equipment was only the start of her problems. "I didn't have gloves or anything," she said. "I'm still thinking that I can play in tennis shoes. Let's keep that in mind."

Things got very frantic, very fast; there was a week until their first tournament, and along with her equipment, she had to get medical clearance from the NCAA, which involved driving an hour home to pick up medical records. Then her first golf club order was canceled, forcing her grandfather to pay for expedited shipping, and the entire time she was getting emails from Hamilton politely but urgently tracking her progress.

Three days before the first tournament, her NCAA eligibility came through. That Friday at 3:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the mailroom at Meredith shut down for the weekend, her clubs arrived.

"Have you ever heard of a score like Sarah’s 276?"

"I have not. I have not. But I thought it was interesting."
—Lindsey Vickers, Meredith College Golf

Sarah Marshall is a 22-year-old business administration major from Raleigh—she wants to be a corporate event planner—and before all this, she thought she had at least an idea about how to swing a golf club. Her father was a good stick who had played in college, and he sometimes took Sarah and her four siblings to hit balls at the range. Plus, Sarah was sporty; not that she was the most competitive person in the world, but she was tall, she played basketball, and she grew up in the Raleigh parks and rec system; she considers herself “kind of, somewhat athletic.”

"But I wondered if they'd come back. I thought, no one would blame them if they didn't want to come back for the second round '
—Lindsey Vickers, Meredith College golfer

She was still in bed the morning of Feb. 7 when she saw the email from Coach Hamilton. She didn't spend much time thinking about it; this was her way of becoming a college athlete, and how cool would that be?

"I would get out of class, I'd get free apparel, I'd get to go to places, and I’d get to tell people I'm on the Meredith College golf team," she explained, laughing.

She took a screenshot of the email and sent it to her family group chat—nobody dissuaded her.

Like Maycee Kay, she began the hectic process of trying to become eligible for the team. She had one advantage, or so she thought—an old set of women's clubs in her home garage that she had hit as a kid. (As it turned out, they were far too small for her, but she wouldn't learn that until her first tournament.) The whirlwind began; the NCAA physical, bloodwork, a race for eligibility. She was cleared two days before the first tournament, and on the Saturday night before she left, she and her mom went to Dick's Sporting Goods to buy shoes, tees and other items her dad told her she needed.

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Sarah Marshall had connections to the game with her father playing in college, but had never played competitively herself before joining the team. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Marshall)

At 8 the next morning, she piled in the van with Coach Hamilton, Maycee Kay and the rest of the team. Hamilton considered it a minor miracle that it had worked out, and now they were all bound for the Lion's Paw Golf Links in Ocean Isle, N.C., on the Atlantic Coast just north of Myrtle Beach, for the Pfeiffer Spring Invitational.

Nobody, including the Lion's Paw Golf Links, was ready.

"I would say the first golf tournament was very, uh … humbling. That would be a good word."
—Sarah Marshall

When they got to the course for the practice round, they were told they had to change out of the sweatpants and yoga pants they were wearing—"that's not appropriate golf course attire"—before they played a modified practice round. Hamilton's priority was to teach them the rules. He spent time explaining what to do if a ball went into the water or out of bounds, situations, it turned out, that would befall them with great frequency.

"The first hole was going pretty well for me, and I thought, 'oh, maybe I'm not that bad,'" Maycee Kay said. "Even Coach said, 'this might not be terrible.' But it just went straight downhill."

Despite the fact that they used golf carts that day, and didn't play every hole, they still left exhausted. The two first-timers checked into the hotel room they were sharing and contemplated the day ahead of them.

"We were kind of hysterical at that point," she said. "They really put us through the wringer."

The night passed, and the next day, they made their official college debuts. In that first round, on a cold, overcast, and occasionally foggy morning, Maycee Kay Aycock shot 158. Sarah Marshall shot the infamous 276.

How do you describe a round like that?

"There were whiffs happening, and sideways shots, and penalty areas and different things," Hamilton remembered. "I worked with them a little on the range, and I explained to them, the biggest thing you have to do is get around the golf course and finish 18 holes. They understood what needed to be done, and man, they hung in there."

Maycee Kay asked her playing partner—begged might be the better word—to tell her when she was doing something wrong or breaking a rule. To her relief, the partner was nice, and even gave her swing advice.

Sarah was extremely nervous to start the morning—her preparation amounted to little more than a few pointers from her sister—but she had a mantra: "you're here, you committed, you can't drive yourself home, so play." Her partner, for reasons Sarah understood, seemed a little irritated. That made the situation tougher, and emphasized just how alone she was that day.

"She wasn't mean, but she wasn't nice," she said. "I don't know why, but I didn't really put two and two together that these are college athletes that have been playing their whole lives. And they're actually on these teams because they were recruited, and wanted to be there."

Maycee Kay and Sarah were both carrying their bags, and while Sarah, taller and stronger, managed to escape with only fatigue, Maycee Kay left with bruises on her chest, her collarbones "popping out and purple," significant windburn on her face, and softball-sized rashes on her back and legs.

("I did go on Facebook Marketplace and buy myself a $40 pushcart after that," she said.)

Finally, it was over. Sarah didn't even process how bad she was until she finished her round and got back in the team van. She knew that she had exceeded 20 on multiple holes, but when her teammate Lindsey Vickers calculated the total on GolfStat and announced "276," they all broke down in a fit of laughter.

"The fact that I have to come here tomorrow and show my face again is insane," Sarah said.

Vickers, a freshman from Pittsboro, N.C., and the team's best player this spring, was a serious Irish dancer as a child until she took up golf in eighth grade. She's an engineering major who dreams of designing boats, and she knew nothing about her new teammates before that day.

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The Meredith College Avenging Angels who competed at the Greenbrier: Maycee Kay Aycock, Lindsey Vickers, Jenna Cirillo and Sarah Marshall. (Photo courtesy of Meredith College)

"We just died laughing for a solid 15 minutes," she remembered. "But I wondered if they'd come back. I thought, no one would blame them if they didn't want to come back for the second round … golf is a hard sport, especially when you're down there missing school and playing 18 holes in the sun."

Hamilton took the team to dinner, and told his two new players how proud he was that they had endured. "It took a lot of intestinal fortitude," he told me. "And there were no tears, no meltdowns. I just thought they were fantastic."

Maycee Kay and Sarah still barely knew each other, but that night is when their friendship truly blossomed—before long, they'd be making TikTok videos together on the course or crying in each other's arms, depending on the moment. Ask Maycee Kay now, and she’ll say that Sarah will be one of her bridesmaids some day.

"At that point we were weirdly connected," Sarah said. "Back in the hotel room that night, I told her 'look, now we're trauma-bonded.'"

The minute those words came out, they started laughing again.

They were back at it the next morning; Maycee Kay, feeling the pain, shot 173, but Sarah came in at 199. The school website documented her feat with a sentence that has almost surely never been written before:

"Sarah Marshall improved her score by 77 shots."

The team needed two more tournaments to qualify for the USA South Conference tournament, and Hamilton had one lined up for the end of March … right up until one of his players delivered the bad news: "Coach, that weekend is the Meredith spring formal."

'There were whiffs happening, and sideways shots, and penalty areas and different things. … I explained to them, the biggest thing you have to do is get around the golf course and finish 18 holes. They understood what needed to be done, and man, they hung in there.'
—Jimmy Hamilton, Meredith College women's golf coach

If he wondered whether his team might skip the event to play golf, he didn't wonder long; he withdrew from the tournament.

They next hit the road in early April, bound this time for the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and the Southern Virginia Invitational. There, the other coaches and the Greenbrier staff, fully briefed, went out of their way to welcome Maycee Kay and Sarah. They paired them together and instituted a special rule that if they made a 10 on any hole, they'd pick up and move on to the next. That helped Maycee Kay shoot 148-131, while Sarah improved with a 159-157. (Lindsey Vickers finished birdie-birdie to post a personal best 87.) Meanwhile, they had a blast.

"We didn't know we weren't supposed to have our phones," Maycee Kay remembered, "so we were making TikToks in the middle of the course."

They were also playing fast—they kept pace the entire week despite the high scores. On the first day, they were paired with a player named Nadia Seymore from Bluefield State, and Seymore and her coach Samuel Berry were particularly kind to the two girls, dispensing advice ("sweep the ball") and easing their stress in strange circumstances.

Hamilton set up a special one-day event at Averett University in Virginia, and when Maycee Kay shot 153 and Sarah 163, they were eligible for the conference tournament.

"You want to make sure you've got a cushion when it comes to that automatic qualifier, so when Coach Hamilton reached out and said, should we come to the conference tournament, of course the response was yes. And it certainly came on our radar that a couple of the student athletes were going to be … um … assisting the greater good."
—Tom Hart, commissioner, USA South Conference

Hamilton won't forget the support he got at the USA South tournament in late April. The night before the tournament began, at the Carolina Country Club, he explained the situation to the other coaches, and on Monday morning, one coach approached his two players to tell them how proud he was of what they were doing for their team and conference; Hamilton almost started crying on the spot, and when we spoke on the phone, he choked up at the memory.

Tom Hart, the conference commissioner, gave them inspirational quotes each morning at the first tee, and discussed concepts like mindfulness. ("I was in a mindfulness PE class at the time, so we were bonding," Maycee Kay said.)

"What impressed me is that they were trying to improve," Hart said. "Every day. And it struck me because that's the sentence at the bottom of my email signature. 'When we focus on small, incremental improvements instead of perfection, the human spirit takes over.'"

He told them they were doing something bigger than themselves—keeping the program in good standing, preserving the status of the conference. Hart was struck by their positivity, and found it refreshing to watch golf through the eyes of two players who weren't in a constant state of self-recrimination like players far better than them.

'The way I got into golf is definitely insane and bizarre, but I'm glad it happened. I plan on getting better this summer. I want a revenge tour.'
—Sarah Marshall

After the opening round (177 for Maycee Kay, 198 for Sarah), Hart decided to pair them together and sent them out a half hour ahead of the others. There, they played fast enough on the second day that the group behind didn't wait until the 18th hole. In the process, they gained support from all corners.

"One of the fathers was like, 'I love y'all, you're so great. If you want shots, I'll go to the clubhouse and buy 'em. Y'all deserve it!'" Maycee Kay said.

They politely declined.

In their downtime, they befriended a shy scorekeeper from Methodist University, a women’s golf powerhouse with more than a dozen D-3 national championships, including most recently in 2021. They liked him because they could make him blush.

"Did you ever see scores as high as ours?" they asked him.

"I didn't know scores got this high," he said.

On the final day of the conference championship, the rain fell all morning. Despite the support they'd received, some rogue negativity—in concert with the weather and their own fatigue—had begun to affect them. Earlier in the tournament, after Maycee Kay made a legitimate 5, an assistant coach encouraged her player to question the score, thinking it had to be wrong. (Which surprised her to overhear, since it was abundantly clear that she wouldn't be challenging for any title, and had no incentive to cheat.) And on the final day, another player had called them "embarrassing."

That's when they cried together in the bathroom, and received some timely therapy from another player’s mom. They soldiered on, and a few holes later, the rain intensified and the rest of the final round was canceled. Methodist won the conference title, and Meredith, predictably, finished seventh out of seven teams.

"They were two holes from the finish," Hart remembered. "They were soaking wet, but there was joy on their faces. And we got a photo, because I told them, ‘I want you two to remember this.’"

That was the end of the line for Meredith’s season, but for Maycee Kay and Sarah, they consider it just the start of their story. Hamilton made it abundantly clear that they had a spot on the team as long as they wanted one, and they intend to take him up on the offer.

"The way I got into golf is definitely insane and bizarre, but I'm glad it happened," Sarah said. "I plan on getting better this summer. I want a revenge tour."

"Me and Sarah want to have a Cinderella story," Maycee Kay agreed. "We were known as the worst people, and now we want to be known as middle of the pack. We're probably not going to reach the top of the pack. So the middle of the pack, that's our goal."

If it happens—if someday they break 100 and enter that sanctified median—they can't possibly win more fans than they have this year. Together, they might be the two worst college golfers in America, but that’s only if you can’t look beyond the score.