Former golf coaches Eddie Weldon and Marci Kornegay knew long before Jutta Degerman arrived in Rock Hill in 2003 that the young lady could play. The big questions were if or how long would the native of Kauniainen, Finland, would stay.
Nobody knew for sure. Everybody knew she had a big case of homesickness from day one.
"I was miserable that first semester and wanted to go back home," Degerman recalled during a recent stop at the Winthrop Golf Course. "I left after my first year because I was so homesick. I decided after Christmas that I'd stay through second semester, but there was no way I would stay for four years."
She finished that freshman season, earning All-Big South Conference honors along the way.
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Then it was back on the plane for the nine-hour, 4,560-mile trip to Finland, where Degerman planned to get a job, play as much golf as possible and go back to school to study law.
But there was some unfinished business in Rock Hill.
"All the way here I kept telling myself that there was no way the coaches were going to talk me into coming back," Degerman said. "My mom had told me over and over that I was giving up a great opportunity, but I kept telling her there was no way."
Degerman began to rethink her position after a long talk with Weldon and new women's coach Jodi Wendt, and a get-together with former teammates.
"Coach Weldon told me that everyone wanted me to come back and that I still had my scholarship if I did. So, I decided that I'd stick it out.
"It's worked out really well. I have a fantastic boyfriend and that's made it a lot easier. "
Degerman and Cameron Pace have been together for three years and are planning to get married at some point.
The much-happier Degerman has developed into one of the best female golfers to play at Winthrop. After redshirting her sophomore year, she came back and earned All-BSC honors for the second time and is a favorite to pick up more.
She's playing the best golf of her career, as her 2007 fall schedule results showed. Degerman finished second in the DeBary Intercollegiate, 10th in the Lady Paladin Invitational and led the team with a 74.09 stroke average.
"Jutta had a great start in the fall and is playing better than ever," Wendt said. "She's one of the most determined players I've ever been around.
"Her maturity, her talent and her work ethic have been key this season. Her strength is her long game. She needs to continue working on her short game, but she knows that."
Today, Degerman, along with her teammates, begin defense of their individual and team championships in the Shamrock Invitational at Tega Cay, a tournament all Lady Eagles call their favorite of the year.
"It's amazing," Degerman said. "All the people and club members from Tega Cay have been so supportive of the tournament. They're so enthusiastic and we get so many volunteers who work so hard. It's great. People you have never met are out there following you around cheering you on. They cheer for us, but they also cheer for all the other teams and players."
With her mom in the gallery a year ago, Degerman shot a 73 in the final, good enough to wipe out a five-stroke deficit and earn a three-shot victory over Charleston Southern's Katrin Rumpf and East Tennessee's Lucy Gould.
The Eagles were seven shots back going into the last round, but like Degerman, rallied to win their tournament for the first time.
"Both my parents are coming to watch me," Degerman said. "My mom was here last year and I won. I always seem to play well when my parents are watching me, so hopefully I can get another win."
Degerman grew up in a family that loved sports, especially golf. Both her parents played, and she took up the game when she was 5.
By the time she had finished Haukilahti High School, she had won the 2000 Finnish Amateur, finished second the following year, won the 2000 and 2001 Finnish Amateur Match Play Championships and earned all-region and all-state honors.
In international competition, she was a member of the Finland National Team in 2000-02 and competed in the championships in Italy, Denmark and Portugal. In 2001, she placed 16th in the Belgian Amateur.
Degerman had planned on going to school in Finland, but an older brother, Tommi, who was playing hockey at Boston University, urged her to look into colleges in the United States.
Degerman put together a resume and video and sent it out to a number of colleges. As soon as Weldon and Kornegay looked over the information and watched the video, they offered Degerman a scholarship.
With her collegiate career rapidly coming to a close, Degerman is thinking about playing on the next level. She has already qualified for the women's Futures Tour.
Wendt, a nine-year LPGA teaching professional and former player on the Players West Professional Tour, says the history major has the game to make the jump.
"There's no doubt she has the ability," Wendt said. "If she puts her mind to it, there's no doubt she can make it."
Degerman has already graduated and could have turned pro a year ago. But she felt she needed another season of collegiate golf.
"Last year I think I lacked the confidence I needed to play professionally," she said. "I figured one more year here was the best thing for me.
"My dream is to make it to the LPGA. I'll play the Futures Tour this year to see where I am. If things go like I hope, I plan on living (in the United States) for a long time."
WANT TO GO?
• What: Shamrock Invitational
• Format: 54-hole stroke play
• When: Today-Sunday. Play starts at 8:30 a.m. each day.
• Where: Tega Cay Golf Club
• Teams: Winthrop, St. Francis, Murray State, South Dakota State, Xavier, Charleston Southern, Iowa, Princeton, Presbyterian, Gardner-Webb, USC Upstate, Tennessee State, Siena, The Citadel
• Admission: Free