Nova wins fifth straight Bell Invitational

Nova Southeastern's Abbey Gittings

Nova Southeastern's Abbey Gittings

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— There are times when Abbey Gittings takes her English tea bags over to her neighborhood Starbucks and asks for a cup of hot water. She’ll also have a biscuit or two handy from the care packages mom sends over once every three weeks from Tamworth, England. Gittings, 22, had never been anywhere outside of Europe when she got a note from Nova Southeastern about playing Division II college golf. They had her at Florida.

She arrived pale-skinned and quiet, a straight hitter with a scoring average just below 80. After one year, Gittings considered not coming back.

“If I had left, I would’ve regretted it for the rest of my life,” said Gittings, a senior and the leader of the top-ranked Sharks. “Friends back home say, ‘You have no idea how amazing your life is.’ ”

Dominance in Division II golf comes in big chunks, and right now, the stage belongs to Nova, a private university located in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Winners of the last four NCAA titles, Nova won the Peggy Kirk Bell Invitational on Tuesday for the fifth consecutive year. Lynn University, its closest competition, finished 34 strokes back. Nova’s 886 total is the lowest final-round score in tournament history, breaking their own record by 12 strokes.

Head coach Amanda Brown keeps her Sharks team motivated by concentrating on team and individual goals rather than outside competition. That’s good, because right now there is none.

“I think that’s how we are able to win by 20 strokes instead of two or three,” she said.

Since the Division II national championship was separated from DIII in 2000, only three schools have won the title. Florida Southern won three consecutive championships and Rollins answered with four. The two schools then traded a couple more before Nova broke through in 2009.

Gittings, the lone senior on this purely international squad, hasn’t experienced anything but winning the big one.

Quite possibly the most tan English person on record, Gittings has shaved about six strokes off her game since coming to America. She has also grown louder, a necessary trait to be heard on this side of the pond.

“I was good,” Gittings said of her game as a teen, “but I wasn’t special at all.”

She was flustered after the final round of the Peggy Kirk Bell, chatting away on the phone soon after the round. Gittings’ trusty driver and her iron game had left her at Tuscawilla, and she wobbled in with a 76. Freshman Sharks teammate Linnea Johansson of Sweden won the individual title while another teammate, Daniela Ortiz, edged Gittings by a stroke to finish second.

Nothing about this year, however, can possibly compare to the pressure Gittings felt last spring. Brown's first year as head coach saw one player not return after Christmas break, leaving her with a roster of four for the entire second semester. And a banged up foursome, at that. Brown said the entire team was taking Advil for various ailments: knees, shoulders, a back, a wrist.

“Me, I just took Advil for my stress headache,” said the 30-year-old Brown.

She needed a super-sized bottle at the NCAAs when Gittings’ ailing back reduced her to tears. Brown wiped the tears and mascara from Gittings’ face on the 18th hole in Round 3 as the two talked about whether or not she needed to withdraw. Such an action would disqualify Nova from the team competition.

Determined to win another title, Gittings took out a fairway metal and willed the ball out of a bunker and over water on the 18th hole to finish her round. One day later, Gittings birdied two of the last four holes to capture the individual title, helping her fearless crew win a fourth national crown.

“It still doesn’t feel real to me,” she said.

The Sharks have a chance to make history this spring as they vie for a fifth consecutive NCAA Championship. So far this season they have won five of six events, finishing third at Furman’s Lady Paladin Invitational, a Division I event.

After Gittings collects her degree in sports management, she’ll head back home to a bottomless pot of tea and a frigid climate to prepare for Ladies European Tour Qualifying School.

The tan will fade quickly, but the memories won’t.

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