TULSA, Okla. – Mississippi State coach Ginger Brown-Lemm looked at the tee sheet for the opening round of the NCAA Championship and smiled. Her Bulldogs were paired with the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Duke Blue Devils.
“Am I going to have to call a pastor?” Brown-Lemm cracked.
Jokes aside, the fact that Mississippi State has been sandwiched in between two powerhouse programs for the first two rounds here at Tulsa Country Club speaks volumes to the work Brown-Lemm has done in four short years.
In that time, the Bulldogs have slashed their 54-hole scoring average by a mind-blowing 85 shots. They’ve climbed 102 spots in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and qualified for two consecutive national championships. Last year’s appearance marked the first time any Mississippi school has advanced to an NCAA women’s golf final.
“That’s what belief will do for you,” said Brown-Lemm. “If you don’t believe, someone will take your spot. … It is belief and it is passion. I love what I do.”
Mississippi State’s 5-over 285 Wednesday tied Duke and pushed the 24th-ranked Bulldogs into eighth place. In 2013, the happy-to-be-here team finished dead last in Athens, Ga., after an ugly 327 in the final round. Brown-Lemm wasn’t about to let those 18 holes spoil an otherwise historic season.
“I wasn’t going to let them suffer from that,” she said.
Junior Ally McDonald grew up 90 minutes away from campus in Fulton, Miss., and spent plenty of Saturdays at Davis Wade Stadium. Her home club didn’t have a driving range, so members let her hit balls from fairway to fairway. McDonald, a top-10 junior player, became the first girl to win the Mississippi boys state high school championship.
The fact that McDonald, who was recruited by former coach Christi Sanders, chose to stay in Mississippi carries great significance.
“It meant a lot to our donor base and our alumni that we kept an exceptional player in-state,” Brown-Lemm said.
The most talented player to ever wear a Bulldogs uniform, McDonald is rare in that she sees the big picture. She’s well-spoken, driven and committed to finishing what she started in Starkville.
“I knew the golf program was struggling,” she said. “It was really important to me to leave a mark and build a program that would be in contention for national championships.”
McDonald, a junior who will play on the U.S. Curtis Cup team next week, said it would be selfish to walk away now. A fourth year under Brown-Lemm and a degree in kinesiology will come before the LPGA.
Mary Langdon Gallagher dreamed of playing soccer for Ole Miss until her hip flexors had other plans. After riding the bench at a high school basketball game one night, Gallagher announced to her parents that she wanted to pursue a college golf scholarship.
“They said well, it’s probably too late,” she said.
Mary’s father, Jim Gallagher Jr., is a five-time winner on the PGA Tour and a former Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup player. Mom, Cissye, an 11-time Mississippi Women’s Amateur champion, is no slouch herself. Together, her parents have played in six NCAA Championships.
Needless to say, a determined Mary improved at warp speed, landing a scholarship to MSU before she graduated.
Standing behind the scoreboard after the second round, Mary, a bubbly senior who wants to be a nurse, said a top-10 finish for the Bulldogs at NCAAs is within reach. Fast turnarounds are her speciality.
“I’ve been on the team that was last in the country,” said Mary. “We never expected to win either. That was our mentality: Don’t finish last.”
That kind of talk is blasphemous to Brown-Lemm, who dedicates an hour of practice each week to mental work in a classroom. Attitude is as important as the $2.1 million practice facility, designed by Gil Hanse, that’s now underway at Old Waverly.
In addition to the 7,000 square-foot team building, the four hitting bays, putting lab and the driving range, it will feature a 9,000-square-foot green shaped like the state of Mississippi. The topography of the state will be reflected, she said, with rolling hills and the delta flat.
Brown-Lemm, a Texas grad and mother of two teenagers, is a champion of hard work and clean fun. She’s a 6-foot-1 goober (her word, not mine) who knows when to keep it light and when to push.
“How many of you all are happy this morning?” Brown-Lemm asked her troops at 6 a.m.
Coach’s smile is contagious, Gallagher said.
Brown-Lemm’s coaching style can be summed up in two words: smiles and statistics. She’s a big believer in numbers, pushing her players to find their weak areas by owning their stats. This takes emotion out of the equation, she said.
Well, the numbers don’t lie. Mississippi State’s rise to national prominence is neither chance nor fluke. And the intangibles, like the warmth freshman Jessica Peng felt when she stepped on campus, is invaluable.
“You can tell the difference between other schools,” said Peng, a native of Taiwan. “They treat you different. When I came to visit (MSU), everybody was like family.”
With two rounds left in the NCAA Championship the Bulldogs once again find themselves in unchartered territory. The Devils, and several other heavy-hitters, are within striking distance.
Give ’em hell.