- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md.

For the first time in four years, Stephanie Connelly of Pasadena, Md., feels completely comfortable on the golf course and confident in her future.

The recent Central Florida graduate is playing her last collegiate event at this week’s NCAA Division I women’s championship at Caves Valley Golf Club. And unlike many, if not most, of the other women competing for the NCAA’s top prize on the 6,443-yard, par-72 layout, Connelly feels no bittersweet nostalgia as one chapter closes on her career nor trepidation about the one set to begin.

“This is my last college event, and I want to play well and finish strong,” said Connelly, who stands tied for sixth at the midpoint of the championship, five strokes behind UCLA’s Maria Jose Uribe after rounds of 72 and 74. “But I’ve definitely struggled throughout college, and I’m excited about the next step. I’m turning pro immediately after this tournament, and I’ll be playing the Futures Tour this summer.”

Something of a regional phenom, Connelly was a three-time Maryland state high school champion and three-time Maryland junior girls champion before spending her senior year of high school at the IMG David Leadbetter Golf Academy/Pendleton School in Bradenton, Fla., and accepting a scholarship to play at Ohio State.

As a freshman at Ohio State in 2005-06, Connelly earned All-Big Ten honors after compiling the best freshman scoring average at Ohio State since 1982.

But she wasn’t happy, transferring to UCF after one year in Columbus in hopes that warmer weather and a new batch of teammates and coaches would improve her college experience. It didn’t.

“I think the biggest struggle for me was the team aspect of college golf,” said Connelly, whose scoring average fell out of the top 150 among college women for the first time this season. “I’m an only child. Golf was always an individual sport for me. I’m not a cheerleader. The team thing was extremely hard for me to adjust to, and I don’t think I ever adjusted to it really.

“I always had a strict routine growing up, and suddenly we’re showing up at the course three hours early and everything was off. I didn’t play as well, and that hurt my confidence, and the whole thing snowballed. The team element has been an alien dynamic for me because not only are you trying to win with your team, you’re competing against them in the individual portions of the tournament.”

With the end of her collegiate career in sight, Connelly found her lost form at last week’s NCAA East Region at the University of Florida, stringing together three strong rounds (73-69-68) to finish with an even-par total and just one stroke behind medalist Dawn Shockley to earn an individual berth in this week’s field.

Obviously, Connelly would love to win this week… at home, in front of a large gallery of fans that includes her parents, a handful of relatives and a dozen friends. But regardless of what happens over the next two days at Caves Valley, the 21-year-old is committed to playing professionally.

She earned partial status on the Futures Tour (the LPGA’s version of the Nationwide Tour) by finishing tied for 75th last fall at the tour’s qualifying school. She hopes to play in eight or nine of the tour’s remaining 11 events this season, starting in two weeks at the Ladies Titan Tire Challenge in Marion, Iowa.

When at home, she’ll practice all day at her home course (Sparrows Point) and wait tables at night at her aunt’s restaurant (Stoney Creek Inn in Pasadena) to help pay expenses.

On the road, she hopes to hold down lodging and dining expenses by staying with host families. Her father has agreed to bankroll her first season, which is expected to cost approximately $12,000 in entrance fees, travel and other expenses. To break even, she’ll likely need to finish in the top 40 on the tour’s money list. Last season, No. 40 Eunjang Yi made $11,709 in six starts, so that’s not unrealistic.

“The thing about these girls coming out of college these days is they aren’t afraid of anything,” said Lisa D. Mickey, director of communications for the Futures Tour. “In most cases, they’ve been well-prepared by NCAA careers, and they come out here breathing fire. I’m familiar with Stephanie because she’s played in a couple of our events before, and I’ve noticed she’s doing well this week at the NCAAs. If she keeps her head on straight, I think she has a chance to have a really big summer.”

Connelly agrees, dismissing all but the tour’s ultimate goal as overly conservative. The top 10 golfers on the Futures money list at the end of the season earn an automatic promotion to the LPGA.

“To break even, yeah, you have to play very well,” said Connelly, a feel player with an excellent short game. “I know a lot of people are worried about making cuts and breaking even. That’s not my goal at all. My goal is to go make money, to finish well and to win. That’s how you have to think. … This isn’t junior golf or college golf anymore, where you can say, ‘Oh, let’s just go have fun and hang out with the girls.’ No, that’s not what this is anymore. This is my career. It’s all on me now.”

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