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Belief the backbone of women's golf's NCAA Championship bid

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Thumbnail image for 2700950.jpegMaybe seeing really is believing, but the inclusion of the Kentucky women's golf team into the 2011 NCAA Championships is pretty clear evidence that the Wildcats believed well before they achieved.

In 2009-10, the Kentucky women's golf team missed the NCAA Championships for the eighth time in the decade. Despite playing in a golf-rich conference and making the postseason the year before, the Wildcats failed to capitalize and fell outside the cut to make the 2010 NCAA Championships.

"The University of Kentucky should never be where we were," head coach Golda Johansson Borst said.

Borst believed Kentucky deserved better.

That was the mind frame Borst had when she took over the job following the 2009-10 season. Faced with a roster that was light on depth, seniors and experience, the prospect of making an immediate impact in Borst's first year looked pretty bleak.

But Borst believed Kentucky was better.

After years in the Southeastern Conference as both a player and coach, Borst knew what it took to make it to the NCAA Championships, and she believed this team had it.

"The girls were that good," Borst said.
The hurdle for Borst was making the rest of her team buy into that.

Barely removed from bidding farewell to former head coach Myra Blackwelder and fresh off a disappointing season, there wasn't a ton of confidence within the program. The team's best two players, Ashleigh Albrecht and Betsie Johnson, had just completed their freshman seasons and were still learning how to compete on the college level.

Even if the statistics weren't there to back up bullish expectations, Borst was going to make them believe anyways.

"I told them every day they were going to get better," Borst said. "Every day was 'get better day.' It was get better Monday, get better Tuesday. We've tried to teach them as much as we can and develop their short games, but it was more about believing in themselves when they're playing and believing that they could make their shots."

The first-year head coach used positive reinforcement to instill an expectation level to believe and want more. It resulted in a bid to the 2011 NCAA Championships, the program's 16th postseason appearance and second since 2000.

"The coaches tell us how good we are, how much talent we have and how hard we work," Albrecht said. "They tell us that no one works as hard as us in the SEC. There is no comparison. Having someone there to reinforce it, everyone starts believing it."

And some would argue that believing is actually seeing. Once the young Wildcats started believing they could be better, they started to improve. Even if the finishes in tournaments weren't great results, the mental toughness was much improved.

Playing in a much more difficult schedule than the year before and in some of the nation's top tournaments, UK showcased an ability to hang with some of the best teams in the country.

"When I first came, our girls were just wide eyed," Borst said. "They were like, 'Oh my god, there's Alabama,' and 'Oh my gosh, there's USC and UCLA and Duke and all these teams.' I think for a couple of tournaments, they got a feel of what it's like to play with some of those teams."

The intimidation soon subsided, which should pay dividends Thursday at the East Regional in Daytona Beach, Fla., where UK will face 23 of the top teams in the country.

"We're going to face those girls whether it's in summer golf or college golf," Albrecht said. "It's just a matter of when you face them. If you know you can play with them, you're fine."

Albrecht and Johnson were two of the main benefactors from Borst and her new philosophy. Johnson's season stroke average dropped by more than a swing from last year to this season's 76.52, and Albrecht has a team-best 75.40 stroke average, currently just .06 off the Kentucky school record.

Albrecht shot as low as a 66 in the UCF Challenge on her way to a tie for first in the UCF Challenge. Her 66 was one stroke off the program record for the lowest round.

"We have a lot of girls that can shoot around the 74s, the 73s, but I think Ashleigh is the one person who can shoot below 70 for us on any given day," Borst said.

Technically speaking, Johnson said she's benefitted the most from Borst's short-game approach. Borst said the players can hit balls on their free time, but when she has them for practice, most of the drills center on chipping, putting, and getting up and down from trouble spots.

"Putting and chipping is where you score," Johnson said. "Your swing is not going to be 100 percent all the time. I really had to rely on my short game because we've been doing all that stuff in practice."

After returning from tendinitis in her rotator cuff, Johnson is playing her best golf of the year heading into the postseason, placing 23rd at the SEC Championship in UK's last tournament. Albrecht has also been dealing with a hip injury, but Borst said she's rounding back into early spring form when she was playing at her best.

No matter what happens this weekend in Daytona Beach, the future appears very bright for the UK women's golf team. With seven of eight golfers returning next year, Borst believes Kentucky can not only crack the top 30 but make it to the final weekend of the NCAA Championship.

"We're going to try to go places we've never been before," Borst said. "This definitely sets the standard and from now on we've got to work on getting to nationals."

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