When Maria Hernandez arrived at Purdue University as a freshman, she may have well landed on Mars. West Lafayette, Ind., didn’t quite feel like the Pamplona, Spain, of the U.S.
“When I got here, I’m telling you, I didn’t know what was going on,” Hernandez said laughing. “They just told me to play, and I tried to hit the ball into the hole.”
Now, as she counts down her final weeks wearing the gold and black, Hernandez looks back on her college career with pride. And why shouldn’t she? After all, this shy girl who spoke (or understood) little English and enrolled in math and chemistry classes her freshman year because numbers felt like a universal language, blossomed into a talkative, confident woman who will graduate as the best female golfer in Big Ten Conference history.
“There’s no doubt about it,” coach Devon Brouse said. “She’s the best.”
The numbers are impressive. Hernandez has wracked up 13 career victories, including five this season, one more than any other player in Division I women’s golf in 2008-09. She has won her last three events, breaking a 26-year-old scoring record for 54 holes at the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational in March, topping a field at Arizona State that included the top 3 teams in the country two weeks later, then winning her second Big Ten Championship last weekend.
For a final hurrah, Hernandez is in a heated race for national Player of the Year, an award that at least five other players have a legitimate shot at winning. But to hear Hernandez downplay her chances of cementing her status as the nation’s finest, is to understand who she is as a person.
“I haven’t been thinking about it at all,” Hernandez said. “After the fall I had, I don’t think I have a chance to get it.”
A day before arriving on Purdue’s campus to start her senior season, Hernandez three-putted late in the final round of the European Women’s Amateur Championship, then lost in a playoff to countrywoman Carlota Ciganda, now a freshman and recent Pac-10 champion at Arizona State. The defeat stung so much, Hernandez didn’t want to play in the Fall Preview, the Boilermakers’ first event of the season. But Brouse insisted she go. The results weren’t pretty. Hernandez scrambled to break 80 in the final round, tied for 30th and was heartbroken.
“It’s still fresh in my mind,” Hernandez said about her loss at the European Amateur. “I just gave it away.”
Struggles, not triumphs become a common theme when asking the perfectionist to recap her season. Hernandez doesn’t focus on her victories, but points out spells of errant ballstriking or loose putting. Even Brouse recalls a time during her sophomore year when Hernandez was sitting alone on her golf bag, her head in her hands, tears streaming down her face after finishing a round at Ohio State’s tournament.
“And she’s leading the thing by three shots,” Brouse said. “She’s very emotional. She’s Sergio and Seve incarnate.”
Her drive for perfection is something that hasn’t wavered. Hernandez has been a range rat, clocking long hours especially during her final semester. Brouse has had to call her off the range to make sure his star isn’t overdoing it.
“I’ve known many players who put on an act to make you think they’re better than they are,” Brouse said. “She’s something different and something special.”
Since 2000, only one player – Katherine Hull – has won the NCGA Women’s Player of Year and not finished the season as the top-ranked player in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. That stat doesn’t bode well for Hernandez, currently No. 7. USC sophomore Lizette Salas, the top-ranked player, has won twice and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 all season. Hernandez has been outside the top 10 three times.
There’s still more golf to play, however. Purdue is seeded third at the Central Regional, which starts May 7 at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, where Hernandez won two years ago at the Lady Buckeye Invitational. Then it’s on to the NCAA Championship. A victory at either will make it tough not to hand her the hardware.
“I can’t see anyone who is more deserving than her,” Brouse said.
Hernandez will turn pro after the NCAA Championship and play on the Duramed Futures Tour, where she earned exempt status after finishing fourth at Q-School in November. Brouse says she’ll be “one of the top players in the world” in a couple of years.
There’s more to life than winning Player of the Year, Hernandez says. The award won’t define her, especially after competing a college career and growing into a superstar in the process.
“I never thought I could finish four years at Purdue,” she said. “I’m proud that I took the experience to learn and improve.”
• • •
Five questions with Wake Forest seniors Dustin Groves and Nannette Hill
1) Where’s the first place you bring someone who’s visiting Wake Forest for the first time?
Groves: “Definitely our golf complex on campus. It’s secluded, no one is really ever there, and there’s a huge range. It’s just a cool place.”
Hill: “This is going to sound bad, but the library. It’s the nicest library I’ve ever seen. They have a Starbucks in there. It’s a really pretty building. I don’t go in there that much, but I’ve always been impressed with the library.”
2) What was the best shot you’ve hit this season?
Groves: “In Charleston, S.C., for the Hootie at Bulls Bay. The 16th hole is a par 4. . . . The pin was back left, kind of a tricky spot on this knob. I was between a pitching wedge and sand wedge from 120 yards, and decided to hit a big ol’ full sand wedge. It landed behind the hole, but I couldn’t see it. Everyone up on No. 17 went nuts. I guess it hit behind the hole and sucked right back in the cup. It was pretty cool. I was shocked.”
Hill: “I hit a great chip shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the ACC Championship. It was a double-tiered green, about 100 feet away, and you had to hit it just right into the hill. It rolled up to 4 or 5 feet and I made the putt in front of a big gallery.”
3) What was your favorite road trip the team took this season?
Groves: “The one to Shoal Creek (for the Shoal Creek Intercollegiate last September). We drove from Winston-Salem to Birmingham, Ala. We had just gotten our new team van that had satellite TV. We were watching the Ryder Cup and hooked up the Nintendo Wii. It was the first time in the van and it took nine hours, but it was great.”
Hill: “Definitely California (in February for the Northrup Grumman Regional Challenge in Palos Verdes). We had a great host family and we had dinner there every night. It’s always been one of my favorite tournaments. Actually, it was Valentine’s Day, too. The whole team had a big dinner.”
4) What’s been your best non-golf highlight since being at school?
Groves: “My freshman year, for about two minutes, I got to play one-on-one with (former Wake Forest star and current NBA player) Chris Paul in the gym. We had (become) friends from being around the athletic building. He beat me pretty good. I had been talking smack. Finally he said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Hill: “There is a lot. I really enjoyed the learning atmosphere, being in class and the professors. . . . Another cool thing was when our football team won ACCs and was invited to the Orange Bowl my sophomore year. There were thousands of people in the quad throwing toilet paper in the trees and oranges at each other. It was crazy. It looked like it had snowed.”
5) What are you looking forward to most about the summer?
Groves: “I just had my last class, as a matter of fact. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to turn pro or stay amateur. Eventually I’ll turn pro, and I’m looking forward to playing for money and making a living from what I love to do. I’ve learned so much from coach (Jerry Haas), and I’m ready to take it to the next level. It’s scary, but it’s really exciting.”
Hill: “Working on my game and not worrying about school work. I get to be my own boss. I think I’ll learn a lot about myself. Wake has given me the confidence and resources to do that. Going to school at Wake, I didn’t want to define myself as a golfer. I feel I have the confidence to do anything.”