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Safety, academics came first for UNLV women’s golf team

Amy Bush-Herzer won’t soon forget the second week of March. The head coach of UNLV’s women’s golf team and her players returned to Las Vegas from Tucson, Arizona., on Tuesday, March 11, after one of their better performances of the season.

“By Thursday, our season was finished,” she recalled. “We were all just kind of stunned.”

The severity of the coronavirus was beginning to take hold across the United States, and the sports world changed quickly that week. The NBA and NHL seasons were put on hold, and baseball spring training ended.

As Bush-Herzer and her team wrapped up a team meeting that Thursday, word came down from the NCAA: all college sports were canceled for the season.

Bush-Herzer immediately went into safety mode. She and the staff moved quickly to get their three European players home before any borders could be closed. But for junior Cathy Liu, the player and her coach decided Las Vegas was a better choice than returning to China.

“Everyone’s safety was our biggest concern,” Bush-Herzer said.

That, and making sure her team lived up to the student side of student-athletes.

“I challenged them to be great in the classroom, and they delivered,” she said.

Bush-Herzer’s golfers averaged the highest GPA among any team at UNLV, pulling down a 3.74 for the semester. Two players earned all A’s, and eight of the nine made the Dean’s List.

Golf took a back seat, which the coach says is a shame because her team was starting to round into form.

“We had some great momentum and still had three regular-season events to play,” she said. “As athletes, they had caught their stride.”

This was supposed to be a transition year for the Rebels, who saw their streak of 16 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Regionals come to an end a year earlier. Nobody told the players, who were responding despite having five freshmen and no seniors on the nine-player roster.

They won the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown as a team, and freshman Elina Saksa shared the individual title, thanks to an approach on the final hole that landed inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie.

Saksa and junior Samantha Fuller both earned Mountain West second-team honors for the abbreviated season with their contrasting styles.

Saksa is a bomber off the tee, while Fuller relies on her wedge and iron game to score. In fact, Bush-Herzer created a new team award for Fuller — the Pin Seeker — thanks in part to the phenomenal stat that from 75-100 yards, she never missed a green all season.

Both will return next season, along with the entire roster. In addition, the Rebels will add two freshmen, Maddie Laux, the No. 2-ranked junior player in Arizona, and Las Vegas resident Gracie Orlowski.

But until then, Bush-Herzer has been keeping her team together via Zoom meetings, even though they are scattered across the country and world. They recently got some inspiration from LPGA players Emma Talley and Dana Finkelstein, who joined them to offer motivation and advice on golf and college life.

Talley was one of the most dominant college players ever at Alabama before turning pro in 2018, and Finkelstein is a former Rebel standout who still seeks advice from Bush-Herzer, affectionately called Mom by her players.

For now, the coach is looking forward to the fall and her 10th season at the helm.

“I’m looking forward to that day,” she said in anticipation of having her team all back together. “The future looks bright.”

Chip Shots

— COVID-19 continues to create issues with the PGA Tour schedule following this week’s cancellation of the John Deere Classic. The event was slated for July 9-12 in Silvis, Illinois., and was the first on the schedule where spectators were to be allowed. Illinois, however, has not reached standards to allow for large gatherings of people.

— Are people starving for golf? Last week’s charity match with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady drew an average of 5.8 million viewers, making it the most watched golf event in the history of cable television.

Greg Robertson is a freelance reporter who covers golf for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at robertsongt@gmail.com

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