COLUMBIA -- For the first time since she was very, very small, golf wasn't easy for Taylor Barrett.
All of the drives and putts that had effortlessly placed her at the top of Region 3-AAAA were suddenly just a little above average. The courses and greens she'd grown up playing as a two-time state champ at York Comprehensive High School were gone, replaced by links a shade less difficult than Augusta National.
Welcome to college, rookie.
"Once you get to college, you have to balance so much more stuff," said Barrett, who's about to finish her sophomore season at South Carolina. "I had to balance being around different girls, around roommates from different countries. It was so frustrating."
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Her last tournament made it worth the wait.
Barrett shot a season-best 71 during the final round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, lifting her to a career-best 226 and a 14th-place finish. Coming full circle from a freshman season where she struggled to adjust and an early season sophomore year where she sometimes didn't qualify as one of the Lady Gamecocks' top five, Barrett's performance lifted USC to a fifth-place team finish and a boost before the NCAA Regionals.
Barrett locked down her spot for the NCAAs and hopes to keep the good grace working -- the NCAAs are on May 8, just after exams are over. The Gamecocks don't know where they're going to be sent, but as long as they're going, they'll have a chance to win.
Not bad considering the checkered season the team -- and Barrett -- have had.
"We felt we were playing good but didn't understand why our scores were so high," Barrett said. "We were a mediocre team."
A sixth-place finish in the fall season's opening tournament devolved into 14th and 13th place before tying for seventh at Alabama. After that, longtime coach Kristi Coggins resigned, saying she was unhappy with the direction of the program.
Men's coach Puggy Blackmon was promoted to Director of Golf, in charge of the men's and women's teams, and Coggins wasn't solely in charge of her program anymore. Coggins left and USC hired Duke assistant Kalen Anderson, who'd helped the Lady Blue Devils win two national championships.
Barrett, recruited by Coggins, didn't know what to think when Coggins quit but described it as "comfortable" when Anderson stepped aboard.
"I didn't expect her to be that unhappy," Barrett said. "She was a great person, but change was needed."
Anderson guided the team to another tied-for-seventh finish at the Puerto Rico Invitational before diagnosing the problem. Everybody reported to the tiny golf practice course behind Sarge Frye Field for the next two weeks and worked strictly on their short games.
Barrett, who'd grown up learning from local swing coach Tommy "Tiger" Jordan, also went to men's golf coach Bill McDonald for help. McDonald, who uses the same Accelerized golf system Jordan employs, found the flaws in Barrett's swing.
Slowly, Barrett and the team improved. Barrett, who grew up playing for her mom, Denise, at York, never quit trying, and athough she finished 77th in one tournament and didn't play in another, made the cut for the Gamecocks' contingent to the conference championship.
"You go off to college, they're all championship golfers or they wouldn't be at a D-I school," Denise Barrett said. "They all seem to be meshing well with this new coach. (Taylor's) worked her way back in there."
With Denise and her dad, Richard, in the SEC tournament gallery, Taylor opened with a double bogey in her final round but followed with two birdies just before the turn. She birdied three holes on the back nine and parred the others, anchoring her spot for the Regionals.
The Lady Gamecocks are expected to take the same top five to the Regionals and the time until then is for schoolwork and practice. While Barrett admitted a top-eight finish in the Regionals, thus an advancement to the finals, is unlikely, it's definitely possible.
Which after a prep career filled with nothing but top finishes, was the goal all along.
"We have a pretty good chance, I guess," Barrett said, "but we're definitely glad to have this tournament behind us. We're playing better than we have all season."