Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 25, 2017 digital issue of Golfweek
WOLCOTT, Colo. – It wasn’t until Bianca Pagdanganan aced the 17th hole at the Pizza Hut Thunderbird Invitational last March that she started to think something special might happen – before that, she’d simply cruised. Pagdanganan’s final-round 61 tied the NCAA women’s single-round record.
“I feel like the greatest things in life come when you least expect it,” she said.
Arizona coach Laura Ianello would agree. Pagdanganan, a native of the Philippines, decided late in the summer that she wanted to play her last two years of college golf in a warmer climate. Ianello didn’t exactly know how good the Gonzaga transfer was until she showed up in Tucson.
“We call her ‘the unicorn,’ ” said Ianello, referring to Pagdanganan’s rare natural gifts.
Pagdanganan, a junior, wasted little time in making her mark as a Wildcat, sharing medalist honors with Stanford’s Andrea Lee at the season-opening Branch Law Firm/Dick Maguire Invitational.
Ianello believes the 5-foot-6 Pagdanganan could be the longest player in college golf, creating mega-momentum from the ground up. Pagdanganan loves giving driver a rip in the elevation here at Red Sky Ranch, where Arizona is competing in the Golfweek Conference Challenge for the first time since 2010.
“Almost like a Major League Baseball player that can throw it 110,” Ianello said. “That’s a God-given gift. She’s got it.”
That’s not all that impressed Ianello. Pagdanganan’s maturity and demeanor made for a smooth transition to an established team. While the 61 was certainly impressive, the fact Pagdanganan qualified as an individual for the NCAA Championship in each of her first two years of college golf says much about her intangibles.
“She rises to the occasion,” said Ianello, noting that qualifying as an individual for NCAAs can be more difficult than advancing as a team, which Arizona actually failed to do last spring.
Even the Wildcats’ strength coach noticed something different about the newcomer, telling coaches that Pagdanganan will push through anything.
Ianello’s good news doesn’t end there. Two weeks ago she received word that Yu-Sang Hou of Chinese Taipei was admitted into Arizona and will start in January. Hou is No. 82 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, giving the Wildcats four players in the top 100, joining Haley Moore (23rd), Krystal Quihuis (40th) and Pagdanganan (95th).
“We have all the tools that it takes to win a championship,” Ianello said.
Her biggest challenge: making sure this talent-rich squad feels the need to continually improve.
That’s another reason Pagdanganan wanted to come to a storied program such as Arizona – she’s not the best player on the team. Pagdanganan will be pushed by her teammates, and the Wildcats’ schedule gives her a bigger stage on which to shine.
As a freshman at Gonzaga, Pagdanganan was the first player to qualify for NCAA regionals, let alone the national championship. She owns the school’s career scoring record at 73.22.
Put simply: Pagdanganan wanted a bigger pond. A warmer one, too.
“I feel like these are two very crucial years,” Pagdanganan said of what remains of her college career.
Ianello said that for Pagdanganan to reach her goal of being the No. 1 player in college golf, she needs to focus on 150 yards in, learning to flight the ball different distances. And because she grew up on unusually slow greens in the Philippines, Pagdanganan also tends to jab at putts.
There isn’t a single player from the Philippines inside the top 400 of the LPGA’s Rolex Rankings. Pagdanganan saw quite a bit of two-time LPGA winner Jennifer Rosales back in the Philippines over the summer. Rosales, who last played a full season on the LPGA in 2015, was giving lessons at Wack Wack Golf and Country Club in Manila.
“She was like my idol growing up,” Pagdanganan said.
The path to follow her lead has never been more clear.