College Sports

Hard work Hester's trademark

Sara Hester practices at the Winthrop golf course Monday with coach Jodi Wendt watching.
Sara Hester practices at the Winthrop golf course Monday with coach Jodi Wendt watching.

Sara Hester's a little fuzzy on how old she was when she played her first junior golf tournament.

"I was in the sixth grade, so I guess I was 11 or 12," Hester recalled recently.

But there's one number from that long day at Raintree Country Club in Charlotte that's etched in the Winthrop junior's mind. It took 119 strokes.

Finishing 47 strokes over par could have discouraged the youngster, but it did just the opposite.

"It actually motivated me to go out and work harder on my game," she said. "And I've been working hard ever since."

How hard has she worked to better herself? Just talk with her high school or college coaches.

"I remember that we'd sit down after a match and talk about the things she didn't do well," veteran Fort Mill High School coach Steve Gribble said. "The next day, she was out working on just those things. The main thing is she doesn't consider working on her game as work. She has such a passion for the game and a desire to get better."

Winthrop women's coach Jodi Wendt agrees.

"Sara's game has improved in every area," Wendt said. "She's stronger and has added distance. She has worked harder than anybody on her game, but I think the biggest improvement has been her confidence. Sara has really worked on that."

Hester's work ethic after that opening tournament has produced an impressive resume.

She qualified for the USGA Junior Girls championship.

She joined the Yellow Jackets' varsity girls' team as an eighth grader. Before graduation, Hester was named to three all-region teams and was a two-time all-stater.

She's a two-time Fort Mill Country Club champion.

Hester earned maybe the biggest honor yet last week. She and teammate Jutta Degerman were ranked in the top 50 nationally by Golfweek Magazine after standout performances in Winthrop's record-shattering victory in the Draper Valley Invitational. Winthrop shot a school-record 589 and won by six shots.

Degerman (71-72-143) was ranked 25th. Hester (73-72-145) came in 46th. According to Wendt, the magazine uses a system that uses scores, strength of competition and course rating to set the rankings.

"In one sense it was very motivating because it showed me that all the work I've been doing had paid off," Hester said. "But there's also more pressure because one bad round can cause you to drop."

The Lady Eagles, who were ranked 17th, were idle last week, so Degerman and Hester dropped to 41st and 76th, respectively.

Hester had ambitions of becoming a basketball star as a youngster, but being extremely vertically challenged, she looked in another direction.

"She was so small in the eighth grade that we nicknamed her 'Little Bit,'" Gribble said with a laugh.

Hester turned to golf by accident. She calls it a freak accident. Wendt calls it fate.

"I was riding on the back of a golf cart, fell off and broke my leg," Hester said. "I had already figured basketball wasn't for me, so while I was dealing with the injury I started thinking about other sports.

"You can only play some sports a certain amount of time, but golf is something you can play and be competitive for a long time if you're willing to put in the work. And, you can be small and still compete."

Hester's play, determination and work ethic in her early years soon drew the attention of former Winthrop coach Eddie Weldon. An instant bond formed.

"I knew him from the time I was in the seventh grade," Hester said. "I always wanted to come to Winthrop because I was so confident in coach Weldon and coach Wendt, that I signed as soon as I could."

Wendt thinks team and individual rankings will improve after this weekend's Great Smokies Intercollegiate, which starts today at the Waynesville (N.C.) Country Club. The Lady Eagles shot 595 -- the record they broke last week -- and finished third in the event last year.

"It's a tournament I think we can win," Wendt said. "Western Carolina is the team to beat because they're the host. But the course sets up well for our team. I'm looking for some good scores."

The Lady Catamounts have won the tournament five straight years.

"We feel good about our chances," Hester said. "We've all been working hard this week."