COLUMBIA — Golf was simple when Katelyn Dambaugh was 6 and her parents would let her drive the cart and hit a few balls during their outings at Crowfield Plantation. It’s anything but now, when the Goose Creek native has emerged as a key player on a South Carolina women’s team primed to make a run at the NCAA championship.
The Pinewood Prep graduate was among those who felt increased pressure to perform when freshman Nanna Madsen, a Danish national and USC’s top player, left after the fall semester for the Ladies’ European Tour. Dambaugh delivered with a pair of top-five finishes in the spring, including a tie for fourth at the SEC championship to equal her best career result.
“After the first tournament or two this spring, we’ve adapted,” said the USC sophomore. “We’ve realized that if we just play our game and just don’t put pressure on ourselves, that we’ll be able to play like we know we can.”
Madsen was no small loss — the third-ranked amateur in the world, she won the Ladies’ European Q-School after leaving USC. But thanks in part to Dambaugh’s play, USC remains No. 2 in the Golfstat rankings and No. 5 in the Golf World poll entering the NCAA tournament. South Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Raleigh Regional, which begins May 7.
The top six teams in each of four regionals advance to the NCAA Championship on May 22-27 in Bradenton, Fla.
“If we play like we can and keep the mental mindset that we need, this team is capable of winning regionals and nationals,” Dambaugh said. “But we have to be able to be disciplined enough to stay in the right mindset, know that we’ll probably deal with some adversity, being weather or whatever it may be. We just need to stay patient and not get ahead of ourselves. If we do all that, we’ll be capable of some really great things.”
Dambaugh was second-team All-SEC as a freshman, when her scoring average was the lowest ever by a first-year player at USC. But she broke through in earnest this spring, when the Gamecocks needed players to step up and fill the void left by Madsen’s departure. Her most recent two tournaments have been her best — fifth at Arizona State’s invitational and a tie for fourth at the SEC championship with teammate Justine Dreher.
Her finish at the SEC championship included a 6-under 65, which tied for the lowest round in the history of the USC women’s program, as well as the event itself. It wasn’t an easy thing, leaving behind all that pressure she put on herself after Madsen left. But the more she was able to do it, the better she played.
“It’s just kind of falling into place for me right now,” she said. “I think my mindset has gotten a lot better the past couple of tournaments, and so I’ve learned a lot from that. Hopefully, that will continue.”
Dambaugh played at Crowfield growing up, and the past four years she has played at Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw under teaching pro Greg Boyette. At USC, her biggest challenge has been not necessarily the mechanics of a game her parents said came natural to her, but the internal discussions which can disrupt them.
“Most of it’s mental for me. I feel like for our whole team, most of it’s mental,” she said. “But our coaches have really helped us with staying patient and taking one shot at a time. And I feel like our team, when we are patient and we don’t put too much meaning on one shot or one round more than any other one, and we just stay patient and let everything come to us, I feel like that’s when we play the best.”
That certainly seemed the case at the SEC championship, where USC finished second to match its best result of the spring. Meanwhile, Dambaugh’s last two events have included rounds of 65 and 66, her career scoring average has dropped to a program-best 73.54 and her confidence is soaring as the NCAA tournament approaches.
“After these last two tournaments and seeing what I can do, I’m a lot more comfortable than I was coming into them,” she said. “Because confidence was a lot of my issue — I wasn’t feeling as confident as I had in the past. Going into regionals, I feel like this is as confident as I’ve been my whole sophomore year, so I’m excited about that.”
The East Regional will also feature three other state teams.
Joining the Gamecocks in the 18-team regional will be No. 7 seed Furman, the Southern Conference champion which is ranked 28th in the latest Golfstat rankings; No. 13 seed Coastal Carolina (No. 49 Golfstat), the Big South champions; and Colonial Athletic Association champion College of Charleston (No. 63 Golfstat) as the No. 15 seed.