PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – The last time Julia Strandberg was in this position . . . well, it had been a while. After much contemplation Monday, the East Carolina senior could say definitively that the last time she led a tournament, she was a junior in high school, she was playing in the state championship, and she won. That was six years ago – seemingly a lifetime for a 22-year-old. Since then, she’s dealt with a debilitating back injury, crushing near-misses, wavering confidence.
“It’s been rough,” Strandberg said, “but I never gave up. I never wanted to be a quitter.”
That she ascended to the top of the leaderboard after the first round of the Golfweek Program Challenge was surprising for many reasons, all of them uplifting. It was only her third career start. Her opening 68 Sunday was her best competitive round – by five. And, yes, after three discouraging seasons, she was in the final pairing at a college tournament.
“It was almost surreal,” Strandberg said, “because it’s been so long. It’s been a long time coming.”
Though she kicked away her one-shot lead after a second-round 76, she’s still the unlikely leader of the East Carolina Pirates, who will take a one-shot lead into Tuesday’s final round at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. Said East Carolina coach Kevin Williams: “She is one of those kids who you always pull hard for.”
Indeed, every East Carolina player says the same thing: Strandberg has tons of game, she’s oozing with talent, but she never could crack the starting five. Part of that was her competition; Colleen Estes, who graduated in the spring, was a solid No. 5. Another part was injury-related: Strandberg was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her lower back in spring 2010, forcing her to put away the clubs for four months. So, sidelined for the summer, she focused on physical therapy. Lots of stretching, lots of core strengthening, lots of pain medication. She became a gym rat. Every once in a while, Williams received an email from the school’s athletic trainer: Julie is doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing!
So impressed was Williams that after Strandberg’s sophomore season, he offered her a full scholarship, saying she “epitomized everything you’re looking for in a student-athlete.” It was a reward for her hard work, perhaps, but also a boost of confidence. “It was almost like saying, ‘I believe in you this much,” Williams said.
But when Strandberg returned to campus last fall, she pressed and struggled to compete in qualifiers. As a junior last season, her scoring average was 80.58. Her national ranking was 890th. Her best finish was a tie for 22nd. That was proof, she said, that she needed to sharpen her mental game. Strandberg knew she had a pretty swing, a solid stroke, a sporty game – she just couldn’t trust it. This summer, she backed off every time she wasn’t completely committed to the shot, the swing, the club choice. Already, the signs are promising. Said Williams: “She came in this year with a carefree attitude. She’s thinking, Now, it’s my time.”
“I was always right there,” Strandberg said, “and I think what beat me was my mental game. (In qualifiers) I was just thinking about their score and what I need to shoot and not thinking about the golf shot I was hitting.”
Further proof came Sunday, during her opening 68. “Normally, I would have been shaking over every shot,” she said. “But I was really at ease.” And there was little change in her attitude Monday, despite double-bogeying two par 5s on her way to a second-round 76. She is only four back of James Madison’s Nicole Sakamoto, in line for the best finish in her truncated career. More important, however: East Carolina needs her in order to win. The last time she was in that position . . . well, it’s been a while too.
“She just wanted to get that chance to play and be a contributor,” Williams said. “I think she wants to give back to the program. She wants to do her part.”
Golfweek Program Challenge – Day 2 Video