Isabella McCauley was all smiles walking away from the ninth green at Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo on Wednesday. The Gophers freshman had just completed a final-round 1-under 71, the best round a Minnesota golfer fired all week.
“Yes,” McCauley said, “today was good.”
The entire week was in many respects. McCauley, who starred at Simley High School and on the national junior circuit the past few years, completed her first collegiate tournament in her home state, just a short drive from where she grew up. It came at a prestigious tournament named after and attended by Annika Sorenstam, still the premier name in women’s golf. The Gophers were joined by 11 of the best teams in the country. McCauley was supported throughout the week by family members and Gophers fans who wanted to get a glimpse of the freshman’s debut.
“Oh my gosh, I love it. Could not imagine a better (first tournament),” she said. “First day, there were so many people out watching. A ton of support. … So it was really cool to have this be my first college event.”
That support and the fact that it was indeed a first left McCauley, a former high school state champion who qualified for and competed in the Women’s U.S. Open in 2021, rather nervous on Monday. Gophers coach Rhyll Brinsmead said McCauley hit some “uncharacteristic shots” in Round 1 that were easy to chalk up to nerves. McCauley shot 76 in both the first and second rounds.
It was those struggles through which Brinsmead learned a bit more about McCauley. She has watched the golfer extensively over the past two years, which means she’s watched a lot of good golf.
“So when you see a kid just sort of walk off discouraged (this week), what do they do?” Brinsmead said. “For her, it was dig in and be motivated to do better.”
After two days of struggles with the putter, McCauley went to the practice green and got to work. That created confidence, which carried into Wednesday’s third and final round. Her 71 moved McCauley up 11 spots into a tie for 41st at 7-over par 223, making her the Gophers’ top finisher. Virginia’s Amanda Sambach won the tournament at 9-under 207.
“The 71 is more in line with what we expected from her, but it was interesting to see, ‘What are you going to do now?’ ” Brinsmead said. “And she did what we thought she was going to do, and that’s bounce back. So that’s fun, and I think this will kickstart her college career.
“I know there’s a lot of people in the state looking, and I think today, as much as it was for her, was for everybody who’s supported her to this point as well. So there’s a lot on her shoulders coming into this event, so for her to shake off those nerves and get it going today, that’s fun.”
From McCauley’s past U.S. Open appearance to this week’s collegiate debut, Sorenstam noted it’s important for players to gain these types of experiences.
“There are learning lessons, being comfortable in different situations. And I think that’s, as individuals, when we grow,” Sorenstam said. “Some of (the players here) have been here for several years, but every year they mature, they learn something and they take away something, and that’s really the goal with us is to provide these playing opportunities for them to make sure that they are ready for whatever the next chapter in life is. … That’s the thing in golf, you’ve got to do it over and over to learn, so I think it’s part of the learning curve.”
McCauley noted this is likely the most difficult field the Gophers will face all season. That’s why Brinsmead doesn’t sweat the 12th-place finish in the 12-team field; Wake Forest won the event by four strokes over Texas. It’s not indicative of where Minnesota sits in terms of the national picture. She liked individual rounds Gophers players put together, and is excited for the group’s evolution. Senior Emma Carpenter was Minnesota’s second-best scorer at 11-over par 227, while Red Wing product Leah Herzog was one shot back at 12-over 228 for the tournament.
“I think it’ll be really cool to see where we line up (at upcoming tournaments) and just have a lot of momentum building into the rest of the fall,” McCauley said.
There is so much McCauley is enjoying about college golf just two weeks into her Gophers career, from the team camaraderie — “We’re incredibly close,” she said. “Everyone, we’re like best friends.” — to the high level of competition that pushes her to be better.
“She’s an independent kid, so we’re not following her around, we just let her fly,” Brinsmead said. “She’s going to do her thing, and she’s going to be just fine. But we’re super proud of what she did today. That’s awesome.”