Joe Hettler | Wednesday, August 27, 2003
The license plate on the back of Saint Mary’s golfer Stefanie Simmerman’s 2003 Toyota Four Runner says SMCGOLF – a mini promotion of sorts for a school that hasn’t seen much athletic success in its 160-year history.
After the four-day D-III national golf championship tournament in Wisconsin last May, Simmerman did more to promote Saint Mary’s athletics than any person ever before. The then sophomore shot a 23-over 315 to win the D-III national title by four strokes and give the Belles their first national championship – individual or team – in school history.
“It was very exciting. I’m glad I got Saint Mary’s name out there. Hopefully it’ll bring some recruits in and help us become better in the future,” Simmerman said.
Simmerman’s championship was news across the country. She was quoted in numerous papers, from her hometown in Arizona to USAToday, and she also became a finalist for the D-III Female Athlete of Year. She was easily the most known athlete in Saint Mary’s history and put the Belles on the map nationally in Div.II sports.
And all this from a girl who didn’t focus solely on golf until her junior year of high school.
Simmerman grew up with three loves – golf, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Her mother was a Belles graduate and her father attended Notre Dame. She remembers watching Irish football games at home with her parents and even traveling to see games in person with her family.
Her father introduced her to the game of golf, often taking her to the course when he played with his buddies. By the time Simmerman attended high school, she was an outstanding golfer and softball player. But before her junior seasons, Simmerman decided to focus on just golf and finished her high school career as a four-year letterwinner in the sport.
Few schools recruited Simmerman as much as Saint Mary’s, who called her nearly every week. When the decision came for colleges, the choice was easy for Simmerman.
“Other coaches weren’t so into me, but I really didn’t mind because I knew Saint Mary’s was where I wanted to be,” Simmerman said.
Simmerman shot an opening round 76 to stay within two shots of the leader on the first day of the tournament. She tied for the lead heading into the third round after firing a 82 on a windy day that caused most players’ scores to soar upwards. On day three, Simmerman took control of the leaderboard by shooting a 77 and held on to win the title with a final round 80 at the Golf Courses at Lawsonia.
The amazing aspect of Simmerman’s victory was the way she played leading up to the tournament. Throughout her entire spring season, Simmerman said she hadn’t played up to her standards and felt a top 20 finish at the championship would be a successful weekend.
“I had kind of struggled through the spring a little bit, so I wasn’t expecting great things at nationals,” Simmerman said. “I was just hoping to play my game and then see what would happen.”
Simmerman worked with her coach, Mark Hamilton, in the weeks before the tournament. She practiced whenever she could, staying on the course before and after class. So when the tournament arrived, Simmerman’s game was well tuned and the better competition made her concentrate more and step up her play
“The quality of the competition was part of [the improvement],” Simmerman said. “It helped me focus more on what I needed to get done. If someone had a good shot, it made me want to make my better and get closer to the hole.”
After shooting the first round 76, Simmerman’s goal of just shooting well turned to winning the entire tournament.
“I couldn’t have been more satisfied with that first round,” Simmerman said. “It was the best round of my college career. Everything was working … After the first day I was thinking, ‘Alright, you have a chance at this.'”
Simmerman entered the final round leading by two strokes. But throughout the entire fourth day, Simmerman had no clue how her closest competition was performing. Several times, Simmerman asked her coach what the scores were for the other competitors. But Hamilton never told her what the scores were. He just told her to stay focused on her game and that she was doing just fine.
“I called my coach on 13 or 14 and asked him, ‘How I’m doing [against everyone else]?’ He just said ‘Just keep going, you’re doing fine’ and then he’d drive off,” Simmerman said.
When she stepped to the teebox on No. 18, Simmerman knew her lead couldn’t be more than two or three strokes and that her nearest competitors still had several holes to play.
“At this point, I’m nervous about other people’s scores and where I’m at,” Simmerman said.
Her drive went straight down the fairway, but the second shot was put in a bunker about 90 yards from the green. With the tournament possibly on the line, Simmerman turned to her coach for advice.
“[The third] shot was all [Hamilton]. Coach told me to do this and do this and I just went through the motion and did it,” Simmerman said. “I remember looking up and seeing my dad across the green and he put his arms up in the arm and yelled, ‘Yeah!'”
The shot had landed within 18 feet of the hole.
Hamilton couldn’t say enough about Simmerman’s clutch shot.
“It really sewed it up for her because anything could have happened on that (third) shot,” said Hamilton. “It was a shot Tiger Woods himself would have been proud to hit.”
Simmerman putted for par and finished her tournament. A little while later she clinched her national championship by four strokes.
“That was my shot of the tournament,” Simmerman said.
With one national title under her belt, the Saint Mary’s junior knows there will be more pressure this year. But she’s ready for the challenge and remains humble despite all her success.
“Hopefully, we can win the conference championship again as a team,” Simmerman said. “I haven’t set that many goals because I don’t want to put that pressure on me. Coach said he could see me as Div. III Player of the Year and he asked me what I thought about that. I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see what happens.'”
Simmerman and the Belles will begin their quest for another conference championship this weekend at the Ferris State Invitational.
They’ll aim for another team title in the fall and then again in the spring at the national level. And they’ll do so led by their own national champion – for the first time in school history.