The University of Georgia Women’s Golf Program is a storied one. National Champions in 2001, it also boasts 3 individual national champions from the roster. It has captured 19 SEC titles in team and individual play, more than any other school. More than a dozen players have gone on to play professional golf at the highest level, and the squad has always been one of the best academically on campus.
Current Head Coach Josh Brewer came to UGA for the 2012-13 season, and his teams have won 10 tournaments in that span, with 10 more medalist awards (for individuals). Coach Brewer was kind enough to give us a few moments of his time to talk about the current squad and Georgia golf, immediately before they depart for the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate (starting today) on Hilton Head Island.
GlimmerTwinDawg (GTD): About this spring squad: Rinko Mitsunaga is the lone senior. Can you talk about the team makeup? From the outside, you seem pretty young but you have some international influences on the roster.
Coach Josh Brewer (CJB): If you had told me in August this was the team I would have, I would have said no, you’re wrong. But we had some huge changes, and fortunate to have some Bulldogs turn pro early (juniors Jillian Hollis and Bailey Tardy). I wish they would still be here, but they were successful, so that’s a great opportunity for them. But other changes like Jo-Hua Hung (Fr.) was supposed to come in August from Taiwan, but moved up to enroll in January. Jenny Bae (Fr.) is a local product out of the Atlanta area even though she is of Korean descent. Harmie Constantino is our other freshman, who is from the Phillipines, so we have a very diverse group. And Gabby Coello (Jr.) is from Venezuela but actually grew up in Florida. Rinko Mitsunaga is Japansese but grew up in Roswell, so a few kids are local. Our other Junior, Kelsey Kurnett, is an Atlanta product. So half the roster is from the State of Georgia even though names don’t match up perfectly.
GTD: I know Bailey Tardy is a special talent (former SEC Freshman of the Year). And I know she went to LPGA Q School a few months ago and just turned pro. I have to believe that her departure leaves a hole in your normal tournament lineup.
CJB: We lost maybe one of the best players in Georgia history. As a freshman she was up for National Player of the Year, National Freshman of the year, and had a great run here. It was unexpected but sometimes they need to leave, and it was a void that we didn’t expect to have to fill. But at the same time Jenny Bae started school early when Bailey hinted she might leave school. So we tried to fill that gap, and it isn’t always perfect but the team dynamic has been great. It’s been a whirlwind but they have bonded really well, and even though we’re super young and kind of the “new” team on paper, we believe we’re going to surprise a lot of people. They work really hard and that’s all I can ask as a coach. With Jillian (Hollis) leaving early, with Bailey leaving early… 2 years ago this is not the team I thought I’d have. At the same time we have a very talented young team with a great senior leader.
GTD: Hung is an early enrollee. Is this type of recruit, one that competes so soon after entering school, and enrolling mid-year, going to be more common?
CJB: It’s becoming more common in our sport. I know schools who did it last year, it makes the transition for international students maybe a little easier because they can stay home a few months after graduation, get organized then start school in January, on an international level that’s going to become more and more common. Usually you don’t see it from a, say, a Jenny Bae from Georgia - she took 21 hours her last semester in high school to graduate early, and just to be here, so we owe her a big thank you. As of now, she has been our best player this spring and once she plays enough rounds she’ll probably be ranked top 50 in college golf. It makes me look very smart (laughing). If you had talked to me in September, I wasn’t sleeping real well (because of Hollis and Tardy potentially leaving early). It has since turned out well and it’s a fun group that I love coaching.
GTD: Your team is coming off a runner-up finish at The Gold Rush in California, having captured the title in 2018. I have to ask – why that tournament, one that is so far away from Athens?
CJB: We played it last year, and we had two extra days to use for practice. I know the coach from my time in Southern California (former assistant coach at USC), so we went last year and this year we were defending champ, and I like to go back and defend our title. The weather is really good that time of year. We fly out there on a Friday morning, practice all day Friday and all day Saturday so we use it for a mini-training camp as well as competition, just so we can have almost 5 days to practice and compete. Yes there’s a tournament piece, but we’re probably not as fresh as the other teams because we practice so hard while there. This is for the bigger picture, in that we’re really prepared come April and May for the meat of our schedule.
GTD: Speaking of the meat of your schedule - you’re going down to Hilton Head for the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. There, you’ll face Duke, Arkansas, Vandy and host South Carolina – all of whom are top 10 nationally, and a ton of other highly ranked teams. This has to be one of the toughest collegiate tournaments in women’s golf. What do you expect when you go, and do you think any of your players will be well-suited for the Long Cove course?
CJB: I think we’ll go down there and we’ll play well. It will give us a true understanding of where we’re at nationally. Because we’ve eased our way in – Puerto Rico is a really good field, and Long Beach we competed down the stretch - so have we used these first nine weeks of the semester to get better? And what areas do we need to improve on to be at the elite level? That’s the way I look at “The Darius”, because we get a little bit of a break after that. But they’re really excited, they’re ready to go see how they compete against the best in the country, and they have a belief that they’ll handle everything well and show that Georgia Golf is one of the best teams in the country even though there are probably very few names that most people will recognize.
GTD: The season is quickly coming to a close. I believe you have just the Ping Invitational in Tempe and the Liz Murphey Classic in Athens before the SEC tournament starts. Any projections for how you’ll finish in conference? What about NCAA Regionals?
CJB: Conference-wise, the SEC is probably as deep as I’ve seen it. And now with match-play (tournament format), you’re first goal is to get to match play (after the initial team score format) and just see. Because what I feel like , we’re better than the last couple of years, we have five players who can finish top-5 in a tournament and not just get lucky. Even with the teams we had that were ranked top-5 in the country, I always felt we had 4 great players and someone who might help. But this time I feel like everyone can compete. And I would expect us to have a chance to win the SEC Championship, knowing that maybe it’s the best conference in America right now. We made it to the semi-finals last year, and our goal this year is to play one extra day and see what happens. From there, we go into Regionals, and that’s a dog fight – it’s the most stressful week of the year for any coach, any team. But to get back to the National Championship is our goal, that’s what they want to do, and once you’re there, who knows? You have to play well for 4 days, but we think we’re good enough to win an SEC title and make it to match-play at the National Championship and let it fall where it may. That’s why I was brought here… to put us in position, and we have the talent to do that. I’m excited. I know our ranking is what it is (currently #38) but we’re a heck of a lot better than that shows.
GTD: The LPGA is such an international tour, and the stars are identified early and turn pro so young, which is why you don’t see too many collegiate golfers getting their LPGA Tour card immediately. But do you have any good stories of alums who are still involved in the game, maybe aspects such as teaching or marketing?
CJB: Probably the most recent that I have coached is Emilie Burger Meason – a 4 time All-American at UGA. She’s currently an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. She started out as a volunteer coach here at Georgia when the assistant coach was out with her first child. So she cut her teeth here as a volunteer coach and now she’s an assistant there and has done a really good job. As far as someone in the game of golf, and coaching, it doesn’t surprise me that she would be. And I’m excited for her as one still involved in the game but not playing.
But we have 4 young ladies who are playing professionally. None on the LPGA Tour with full-time status, but 4 playing professionally who’ve played at Georgia within the last 3 years. Harang Lee had LGPA status last year – she graduated in 2017. She was actually the first recruit I brought to Athens, actually from Spain. She unfortunately didn’t make any LPGA cuts, but kept her Symetra (Tour) status. Manuela Carbajo Re’ was a freshman when I started at Georgia. She is playing the Ladies European Tour and has status there. Plus Jillian Hollis and Bailey Tardy who have Symetra Tour status.
It’s interesting because the Men’s Golf team has had so much success that everyone thinks Georgia Women’s Golf has that same pro success. But when I came here we had only one player with Georgia ties playing professional golf on the women’s side, and now we have 4 in the past 3 years who have gone to prominent tours. That helps makes coaches look a lot smarter when you have Tour players floating around.
GTD: Can you elaborate on the history in the women’s golf program at UGA – obviously you’ve got Liz Murphey, and players like Vicki Goetze, and playing in the tough SEC, etc. What are the goals for the program considering that history?
CJB: We have been the most dominant program throughout history. We’ve won the most SEC titles. I want to continue building on that legacy that Liz Murphey built, that others like Kelley (Richardson Hester) developed here. We want to make sure we get our share, like (UGA) Tennis does to make sure we’ve got the most. But besides graduating students, I want to have the most Tour players. I know I’m here to win National Titles, but in our sport, if you have enough Tour players those National Championships will come. I know they will, so I want to make sure that we are in a position to do so.
I would argue that since I’ve been in Athens that we have the most Tour players – maybe Alabama because they had a really good run for a while. But I know where our pipeline is and we’re going to quickly make that number increase and that’s my goal. That’s why the kids come here – we recruit them to be Tour players and help us win conference titles and compete for national titles.
GTD: Can you comment about Coach Chris Haack and what he’s developed at UGA in the golf program?
CJB: For me, you can almost look at it as a burden (laughing). You have to share a building with someone that’s a Hall of Famer. But it’s someone that I can lean on, ask him a question, and let him possibly handle some things on the building side and fundraising side. He takes that burden off of me and the Women’s program, because he’s so good at it. But we’re competitive. I’m obviously excited they won (Puerto Rico Classic) and we were texting each other, they were texting us while we were in Long Beach, etc. It’s a friendly rivalry there, you try to outdo each other by who can bring the most trophies home every year. But at the same time we both have the same goal – we want to win conference titles and we both want to be in match play at the National Championship. And I’m so fortunate… he’s the main reason I’m at Georgia. I know that so every day I’m there I feel that. And the added pressure by making him look really smart by recommending me to the University of Georgia when that opportunity arose. So I don’t want to let him down. I appreciate that. Same with Greg (McGarity) who took a chance on an assistant coach – an Athletic Director who probably had his pick of any coach out there. So every day, if we’re not winning, I want to win just so they don’t have to hear from fans of “what’s wrong with our womens’ golf program?”
GTD: From unnamed sources, but I heard tell you had an interesting interview process with Coach Haack when you came to UGA. Care to confirm? And care to share?
CJB: Well, it depends on what the stories are (laughing). My wife and I were on vacation and headed to Boston. I was sitting in LAX airport waiting on a flight when Chris called and said “we’d like you to come to Athens and interview for the job.” And I’m in blue jeans and a T-shirt because I’m packed for vacation and have no golf clothes. So I cut my vacation short, which shows I have a very good wife, and ended up having to borrow some clothes just to be respectable for the meetings I had. So it was very unplanned. And I was in Greg’s office when they offered me the contract. My wife and I looked at each other and just decided it was the right fit. I wouldn’t change any of it. You can say it could have been smoother on the interview piece, but it’s a fun story, and hopefully I get to tell it one day when we’re talking about winning another SEC and a national championship.
We’ve got a great alumni base and I’m just trying to live up to what they expect out of the program, and I can’t wait to win that first title with these girls so they can all celebrate together. I think golf and tennis are the two most popular sports in the state, outside of football, so that tells me when we win, that celebration will be even bigger. I grew up around Indiana basketball so I understand the pressure environment. I’d rather have it that way (with the pressure).
GTD: Thanks Coach, I appreciate the information and the candor. And good luck in Hilton Head.
CJB: You’re welcome, have a great day, and GO ‘DAWGS!!!.
Indeed Coach, GO ‘DAWGS!!!
I want to thank Coach Brewer for his generosity. It was a pleasant conversation, so any errors or omissions are on the part of the author and interviewer... not on Coach Brewer.