Coming off her first appearance in the SEC championships, UGA senior women’s golfer Caroline Craig is fourth on the team with a 74.47 average in 17 rounds. The Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, native, who is graduating this spring with a degree in sport management and a Sports Media Certificate, plans to transfer to Indiana University to pursue a graduate degree and play golf next year. For the third time in the last 16 seasons, Georgia is hosting an NCAA regional this week.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Q: What did you make of your individual and team’s performance (ninth-place finish) at the SEC championship?
A: That was my first SEC championship, so I walked in that week thinking nothing was going to keep me from having an amazing time. Absolutely nothing. I’m just going to keep smiling. We had every type of weather. There was one day you would be sweating in sleeveless shirts, and the next day we were in jackets, it was pouring sideways, and the wind was nuts. So, we went through everything. Unfortunately, we did not perform as a team as we wanted. I felt like we still had some fight, and individually, I was fighting until the very end of the final round after a tough second round. We didn’t finish how we wanted as a team, but we didn’t let that get us down because there are still two more chapters in the book. We have regionals coming up. We tried to be really honest with ourselves. I tried to be really honest with myself about what I needed to work on and what I saw competing at SECs that I needed to work on. We just tried to come up with the best game plan for the next step.
Q: What is your mindset going into the regional?
A: It’s just another tournament. Just preparing for the next event. I’m not trying to overhype that it is here at home. It’s very special that it is here at home, and I hope a lot of people will come out and support us, but I don’t want to put too many expectations. I just want to go out, same as the team, and play the golf course. We want to go out, play our game, stay in our lanes, block out any noises and cancel any distractions. We just want to play the course that we know. I think that is what kind of hurt us at the Liz [Liz Murphey Invitational]. We just had too many distractions and thought about how this is our home course, but you can’t slack at all because you still have to hit that shot and execute the shot. We are just preparing and practicing hard, and really focusing on putting ourselves in pressure situations. We are trying to use those drills and games that we use for when we get into tournaments, standing over a four-footer to qualify for nationals, we’re going to knock it in.
Q: How did you navigate entering the spring season with a fractured thumb?
A: I’ve never broken a bone in my entire life, and it was a freak accident. Totally unexpected. Dealing with that, I’ve dealt with some muscle injuries with golf, but for something that couldn’t be healed easily, it was hard for me to grasp. And something so small, but detrimental because you have to hold the golf club. But, during that time, I was upset about it in the beginning, but I decided that I was going to do everything I possibly can so that when I am back in competition I am ready. That way I’m not rebuilding, but I am ready to go. So, I was in physical therapy every single day. I got X-rays every two weeks. I was trying to get any type of update. I did just the motions of my golf swing without holding a club. I could chip and putt, so I did the most insane amount of chipping and putting possibly. I really taught myself new skills like using a 9-iron, 8-iron or 7-iron around the green. I worked on my mental game a lot, just trying to still go through the motions and think about ways that I could improve with how I relax in between shots. I probably did everything you possibly could, so that way, when I came back in, I was ready to go play at the Darius Rucker [Intercollegiate]. And it showed, too. My opening round wasn’t what I wanted, but my last two rounds I played awesome. The opening round was more about getting back into competition. I think that definitely paid off, and I was so excited and dying to come back because I am not one to sit on the sidelines and take a break. I also realized that maybe I needed that break in my life.
Q: What has enabled you to reach a career-best round average this season?
A: My mental game. Definitely my mental game. I’ve just really worked hard on practicing it in practice and staying really focused on what my routine is. What am I thinking about walking between shots? How am I relaxing in between shots? Even when I am fueling myself with hydration, snacks and things like that, I’m really trying to not slack on it or get lazy. That way when you’re in those pressure situations in clutch moments in a golf tournament, I’m able to perform it without my hands shaking. You’re always going to have nerves, your hearts always going to be beating fast. I just felt that it’s just my mental game. It’s gotten really strong this year, and it’s helped me get over a lot of adversity and moments in my game. Maybe I start my round very poorly, but I finish with four birdies in the end. Just my mental game and how to fight back.
Q: What aspects of your game have you focused on developing this season?
A: That’s a good question because it always changes through the years. You get a lot more feedback the more rounds that you play, but one thing that I really wanted to focus on was ball-striking and giving myself reasonable opportunities. You can look at a round, and say, ‘Well, I didn’t make enough birdies,’ but how close are you hitting it to the hole? I’ve been focusing a lot on my half-distances — a lot of those in between numbers that may not be a whole 8-iron. It might be a choke-down, 4 inches, and know how far it flies. I’ve been really a bit more technical, as well as specific, and a bit more feel, too, on those types of numbers because it just makes me more comfortable during the round being able to hit those different shots. I’ve also been focusing a lot on tempo and rhythm, and really just grinding at it every single time doing so many repetitions. That way it doesn’t become robotic on the course, but it just comes versus forcing it. So, I would say those two things are what I’ve been focusing on this semester.
Q: How has the team gelled this season?
A: We are in a really unique situation because this has been a core group that has been with each other for four years. You don’t find that very often. I honestly can’t even really recall a time when that happened, except for maybe the Bailey Tardy and Jillian Hollis era. But this has been a core group that has been together. We know literally everything about each other. We’ve lived with each other, we’ve traveled together. We’ve been through the highest of highs and lowest of lows. So, every year we just try to build on how we can communicate with each other better and how we can support each other better in our golf games. What do you notice about, ‘Hey, you used to struggle with this, and now you’re on top with it.’ We always talk about those things. So, I think that’s how we’ve gelled together as a team, just trying to take what we already knew and expand it further.
Q: What is one thing people should know about this group of players?
A: We work hard. We work really hard. When we go into a tournament, we are very individualized. We know how to compete as individuals, but also as a team. We know how to rally each other together, in my opinion. I would just say we work really hard, but we also know how to relax, too. We need to remind each other to do that.
Q: Is there someone who helps you keep your mentals in check while playing?
Sam Carter is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.