Nebraska senior Kate Smith got news of NCAA changes due to COVID-19 while warming up for a tournament as the spring golf season kicked into gear in a year she was playing her best golf.
“It was pretty devastating,” Smith said.
Smith and her teammates were pulled off the golf course mid-round under sunny skies.
“Usually when you get pulled off there should be something wrong like weather,” she said.
The players were informed the tournament was canceled, but coaches wanted players to keep practicing and focusing on getting better.
Moments later, far more than the tournament was off, so was Smith’s final season.
“It was pretty scary; you wake up in the morning preparing for a tournament and while I was packing up I saw the NCAA tweeted about no championships,” she said. “I went from preparing for a tournament to I’m unemployed without a job or a purpose with this thing. It was pretty hard to swallow, especially because I work really hard in my sport and always have. It’s always been really important to me. I’ve gotten to see a lot of things through and find a lot of success.”
Smith was the leader of the Cornhuskers. She entered her senior season holding the Huskers’ season record stroke average of 73.52. Through her first three years, Smith accumulated 13 top-10 finishes among 20 top-25 showings and a school record 73.70 career average. She was a NCAA regional qualifier her true freshman season and holds plenty of other individual records at NU like best 18-hole score (64), best 54-hole score (202), among others.
Not having all that come to fruition on her final go-around was a big emotional letdown. Unlike her fellow teammates who are underclassmen, the finality hit hard for Smith and fellow seniors Haley Thiele and Jessica Haraden.
“They all know they are coming back in August,” she said. “I just kind of broke down. I was pretty much a puddle the rest of the day.”
The fact is Smith is one of the top golfers, if not the best, in Nebraska history and she competed and found success through multiple transitions at Nebraska with five different coaches, two different nutritionists and two different strength coaches.
“I only had four months with these new coaches,” she said. “I felt like I was at a point in my golf game that I had never seen before - how good I was playing. To lose that but to know maybe I have a whole nother year with those coaches. I’m trying to find the silver lining; the NCAA is working on giving us another year of eligibility, but you don’t want to put all your eggs in that basket.”
Despite the changes in charge of the team, Smith has learned to find ways to excel with new faces, drawing on her experience that dates back to winning five straight high school state titles, getting her start with then Laker head coach Cali Harrier.
“No matter who they are or what their experience, or what they think, you can learn from everybody,” said Smith. “Cali always knocked herself down for her lack of golf knowledge, but I learned a ton from her. If you keep an open mind, anybody in this world can make you a better athlete.”
Smith’s senior season was off to a bright start with a runner-up finish in Seattle last fall. Her final round included an eagle on the 340-yard, par-4 third hole, and back-to-back birdies on No. 15 and No. 16, to cap off one of only three rounds played better than par by the 60 players in the field over two days.
“It was the tightest course I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “It was unreal.”
Smith’s final Husker round produced a 13-under-par 203 (65-66-72), good for second place, one shot off her school record, in Peoria, Arizona. The tournament was held at Westbrook Village Golf Club, the same course she set the school-record 202 on in 2018, along with three other school records.
“With the amount of great golfers there are in the field every week, if I play well and put up good numbers, I’m pretty happy,” she said.
Last summer, Smith returned to Minnesota and made noise winning the Minnesota Women's State Open in West St. Paul July 31, a week after placing second at the Minnesota Women's Amateur Championship. She’s also the holder of the 2017 Women’s Am title.
Decisions about the future at this time are difficult to make. The potential of returning to Nebraska for a fifth season could be possible, as is a future date with qualifying school in the fall.
“I think the obvious answer is yes, why not?” Smith said about returning to Nebraska.
Smith talked with her head coach Lisa Johnson as recently as Wednesday of this past week discussing the possibility of combining both Q school and the fall season.
“I could get professional status while in college and they hold it for you until after college,” said Smith. “That’s a huge opportunity.”
Smith remains unsure, just as concrete plans are impossible to make for many people right now.
“We kind of give our blood, sweat and tears for four years,” she said. “On paper, it looks great, but people don’t see the other side.”
That other side are the many demands of collegiate sports. Smith was really excited to go play golf after finishing her college career, as she anticipated. Her goal was the future after a last run with the Cornhuskers in the present.
“I wanted to find success on my own,” she said. “Every time you go off to college you’re hoping you’ll end up loving your sport more. I keep trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Even some of those have disappeared. Smith was anticipating competing in the U.S. Open qualifier in May. That was postponed earlier this week.
“It’s just day by day,” she said.
The bad news is still fresh for so many athletes. Accepting it and dealing with those feelings are still tasks at hand.
“This is definitely out of my control,” said Smith. “I think college sports have been used as an example as hey everybody, this is serious. We were one of the first to get hit. Now, you look back and say, of course, but at the time my friends were still on a beach on spring break, why can’t I golf?”
Smith holds out high hopes for Q school in the fall.
“That was definitely my plan before all of this because, in my eyes, I’m only just beginning to be a solid, quality athlete,” she said. “You just don’t know a lot in high school. I thought it was a natural next step for me, to try it. I’ve always had such a supportive community here in DL that wants to see it as much as I want to. Professional golf was definitely the next step. I’m just trying to see how the next few months go.”
Getting a chance to come back home has been one benefit for Detroit Lakes’ most decorated golfer in school history.
“I haven’t been home in March in four years,” she said. “I usually don’t get to come home during the school year. I’m just trying to be grateful for being home and getting to do things I don’t always get to do. I limit myself because of my sport.”
Smith is currently completing classwork online and trying to find success in academics. Her second passion, as she calls it, is art so she’s been finding solace in creativity away from competition.
“I’m just lucky I get to play golf for the rest of my life in some capacity,” she said.
Looking back on four successful years competing at the Division I level, Smith has learned what it takes to win and lead a team.
“If you’re doing what others won’t, you’re going to be successful,” she said. “If you’re taking the time to do the things people don’t want to do, you’re going to be better off for it, shooting lower scores. It isn’t really the big things, it’s all the little things and I think I’ve learned a lot of those little things the last four years. What to eat, how much sleep to get, how many times do I stretch per day and what kind of drills do I do...I felt like I was really figuring out this whole golf thing.”