Senior golfers Kate Smith and Alice Duan were both excited and anxious in the month of March as they neared what they thought would be the end of their college golfing career.
However, just as it did to every other sport, COVID-19 forced a change of plans.
Losing the end of the 2019-20 season didn’t stop the two, as they both went into the summer with more determination. This resulted in both winning the women’s golfer of the year award in different states. Smith won Minnesota Golf Association Co-Player of the Year while Duan won Washington Golf Women’s Player of the Year.
These achievements showed Nebraska head coach Lisa Johnson how they, along with the rest of the team, are truly committed to the sport.
“I've been extremely impressed with how committed the team has remained,” Johnson said. “They’re committed to really continue to build Husker golf into a nationally recognized program.”
Smith’s recognition came first, as she received the honor on Oct. 16.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Smith said. “I don't always get to spend much time at home each summer. In the past, this was an award I didn't know if I could achieve. But it was really awesome. My brother won the junior player of the year and it was always something that I wanted to accomplish but just didn't know that I would have the opportunity to.”
After the season was cancelled, Smith wasn’t able to compete for seven weeks, which was the longest she had gone in about four years without golf. During that time, Smith rebuilt her passion for golf and figured out what was important.
Smith had a stellar 2020 year, despite the roadblock that has been COVID-19. Smith finished the spring season with multiple awards and honors including first team All-Big Ten, academic All-Big Ten and the Big Ten Mary Fossum award for having the lowest stroke average in the conference. Smith also finished the season with her fifth school-record, with a season stroke average of 72.18. However, Smith’s biggest achievement of the year was claiming her second Minnesota Golf Association Women's Amateur Championship in the summer. Her first championship came in 2017.
“It's good to see that I'm still moving in the direction I want to,” Smith said. “Each season has had its challenges. So to be able to fight through those challenges and come out with a tangible object tells me I've gotten better and I’ve been improving.”
For now, Smith believes it’s hard to have too many expectations. However, she said she has faith that the spring season will be a go. Her and the team are currently making up for lost time in the fall.
Along with the incoming freshman, Duan will also be a newcomer as a graduate transfer from Washington. To her, it was an amazing honor to win women’s golfer of the year in Washington, but right now, she’s focusing more on her current situation.
“I’ve only been here for about two months,” Duan said. “With COVID-19, it's been kind of hard to get to know the team and we haven't been traveling. Being together as a team is where you make all the memories and funny moments. But so far, everybody's super nice and really open, so it hasn't been too hard of a process.”
Duan graduated from the University of Washington in the spring and much like Smith, won a Women's Amateur Championship in the state of Washington. This and her Golfer of the Year award reflects the journey Duan has had as a golfer.
“It just shows how important a good environment and a competitive team can be,” Duan said. “Good coaching staff and good teammates can make you better. I wasn't the best golfer in high school, I wouldn't even say that I was good. It just was like a lot of hard work in college where I've really put in so much time and effort into researching and practicing to be better. It’s been a journey but there's still a long way to go.”
Before making the transfer to Nebraska, Duan was already a transfer coming into Washington. Duan spent her first two years of college at California State University, Northridge.
“I've learned a lot from each place I’ve been,” Duan said. “Each coaching staff and each team has been really different. Everything has made me have a better perspective on things like my own game, other people's games and coaching styles.”
Duan transferred to the Huskers because she saw the potential that Nebraska had with coaches like Johnson and golfers like Smith. Not only does Duan believe that she can continue her rise as a golfer, but she can also be a part of a team that is also continuing to rise as a program.
“I think it's always good when you can help other people,” Duan said. “My role basically is to bring experience, guide people and help them out. I've had four years of college golf and I’ve been around the country a bit. So, I want to help everyone get better at golf because that's something I'm passionate about.”
The fact that Nebraska has two golfers that have won golfer of the year in different states is a strength for the team, according to Duan.
“It's nice to have somebody that is essentially on the same track as you,” she said. “It's just really nice to have somebody that I can learn from. I'm always asking her how she's doing something, if I think she does it well and I want to emulate that. We’ve talked a lot, practiced a lot together and it's nice to have somebody else to motivate you and to help push you to get better.”
COVID-19 has had an impact on all sports, but golf has had some advantages due to the fact that golfers are spread out and not in close contact with each other. To Smith, the coronavirus has been a thought in the background while she’s golfing, but she said she also feels grateful that she has had the opportunity to play.
“It's been a great opportunity for us to at least practice together,” Johnson said. “We're fortunate that we've been able to develop routine and practice plans. A lot of schools around the country are in our position and so we've really taken advantage of the opportunity of being a golf team and we’ve been very proactive about playing.”