CLEMSON — One by one, members of Clemson’s 2003 national championship golf team stepped forward at the Tigers’ state-of-the-art team facility to be recognized by Larry Penley, coach for 31 seasons and for whom the building is named. The night before, 75,000 fans at the Clemson-Georgia Tech football game had cheered them, too, but this next-morning ceremony was for insiders.
Long-time boosters applauded former All-American D.J. Trahan and his teammates, who a decade ago did what no other Tigers golf team had. And athletics director Dan Radakovich issued a challenge to current players:
“In 10 years, you can be the ones wearing those orange blazers,” worn by 2003 squad members in attendance.
Indeed, that could happen for Penley’s guys. Then again, that might come even sooner for the six teenagers who make up Clemson’s inaugural women’s golf team.
“They all came to Clemson to win a national title,” women’s coach J.T. Horton said. Based on four fall tournaments, it’s not an unreasonable goal, eventually — especially for a squad of six freshmen that includes the No. 1 female amateur in the world as ranked by Golfweek magazine.
Ashlan Ramsey, a willowy 17-year-old but already a force in college golf, watched the 2003 team’s reception and smiled.
“It’s inspiring,” the Milledgeville, Ga., native said. “Coach Penley has been great about supporting our new program, and hearing (Radakovich) say those words motivates you to work harder.”
The Tigers women’s team made its 2013-14 debut by finishing second in its first outing (the Cougar Classic in Hanahan), and followed that with another runner-up finish, a third and a fifth. Heading into spring, Clemson is ranked 11th and 13th nationally in the women’s polls — this, without a player who’d ever hit a shot in college competition before.
“Our goal this year is to get in the top 10, get through our (NCAA) regional and into the national championship field, and then see where we fall,” said Horton, who came to Clemson two years ago with the perfect resume to launch its program, having rebooted Tulane’s women’s program following Hurricane Katrina.
“We want to close the gap on Duke in the ACC, and a (national) finish inside the top 8-10 would be a good, solid first year.”
Don’t tell that to Ramsey, though, or Sloan Shanahan (ranked 17th by Golfweek) or the rest of the lineup, which includes Ramsey’s older sister Taylor, one of two red-shirt freshmen. Think the Tigers are impressed by their first half-season showing? Guess again.
“We expected to come out and win because of our personalities. We don’t like losing,” Ramsey said. “The first two events, we lost both by one shot, and that didn’t leave a good taste in our mouths. We’d feel good about that if we weren’t a team of winners, but we know what we’re capable of.”
“There was definitely an element of surprise (for other teams), but we knew we could do it,” Shanahan, from Suwanee, Ga., said. “Ashlan and I are alike that way: second isn’t good enough. Our time is coming, and it’ll be very soon.”
It all starts with Ramsey, who won twice individually (Lady Paladin, Tar Hill Invitational), on top of a monster summer when she captured five titles, including the Georgia Amateur, Georgia Match Play and both the Eastern and Western Amateurs.
A second-place finish in the 2012 U.S. Public Links earned her a berth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship — an LPGA major — where she placed 48th. Her best round, a 66, came in “the Eastern or Western Am; I can’t remember which,” she said, laughing.
Ramsey’s toughest shots came at the Kraft Nabisco’s 18th hole on successive days.
“It’s a par-5, not an easy approach, water with the green sloping to it — and 2,000 people in the stands (watching),” she said. She hit wedges to four and 15 feet, making birdie both times.
“Her past experience and expertise have helped everyone on the team learn to cope with the emotions of leading the final day, finishing strong, coming from behind,” Shanahan said.
Ramsey ascended to No. 1 in August, but Horton figures her best is yet to come.
“She’s the type athlete you expect to have at Clemson,” he said, comparing her impact to football’s Tajh Boyd. “She plays every tournament to win, and she’s not afraid to let it be known that’s her goal,” he said.
For Ramsey, it all began with sibling rivalry when she was 5 years old.
“My dad would take Taylor to the golf course, and seeing her winning events, spending time with him, seemed like not a bad combination,” Ashlan said. She gave up tennis at 8, and though “I wasn’t very good at golf at first; Dad only let me chip and putt the first six months,” by age 10 she had won the U.S. Kids World Championship, and posted top-5 finishes on the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) circuit by 15.
Clemson recruited both Ramseys; it was, Ashlan said, a unique experience.
“We wanted to go to the same school, so we came on a visit with coach Penley and (men’s assistant) coach (Jordan) Byrd before coach Horton was hired,” she said. “They hadn’t made an official announcement of a women’s program, and the coaches said, ‘We can show you around, but we don’t have a women’s program yet … and we don’t know when we will have one.’ ”
Ramsey says she and Taylor fell for the facilities, school and community, becoming the second and third commitments after Edgefield’s McKenzie Talbert (North Augusta’s Jessica Hoang is the team’s other S.C. native).
“I took 10 unofficial visits,” including Georgia, Oklahoma State and Arizona, “but no school did I find as special as Clemson, or that had everything Clemson did,” Ashlan said. “It all fell together.”
That’s been true this season, too. Talbert and Lauren Salazar (Santa Clara, Calif.) are “the most vocal,” Shanahan said, but all six have leadership abilities and, given their youth, surprising maturity. “We’re all brand-new to this,” Shanahan said, “so we’ve had to ‘crutch’ on each other for a lot of things. We’ve built a cool bond, an accountability (where) we pick each other up and fight to the end.”
The Tigers are a fledgling program, but the players and coaches (Horton and assistant Janine Fellows, a former Tulane player and ex-Houston Baptist coach) have high expectations. For Ramsey, that “sort of comes with the territory” of being ranked No. 1.
“A little bit,” she said. “At our last tournament, I had little girls come up when I’m 6-over (par), and say, ‘We came just to watch you play.’ ”
Ramsey laughed. “I’m just trying to finish my round — but how can you be mad when that happens? It makes you step back and think how much of a role model you are, even in a small sense. It puts it in perspective.”
Maybe someday, Ramsey and her teammates will have an even better perspective on their legacy — say, 10 years from now.