Burger makes the most of her Georgia career
ATHENS, Ga. –- Hands folded behind her head, reclined in a tall office chair, Emilie Burger shouts out of the golf office at the University of Georgia Golf Course, “Hey coach, check this out!”
Head coach Josh Brewer comes around the corner and, smiling, shakes his head at his player as she sits behind his desk. It’s from this position, ninth green visible over her right shoulder, that Burger answers questions on the eve of the national championship, which happens to be taking place in her backyard.
2013 Women's NCAA Championship: Practice
View images of a few teams and players from Monday's practice round at University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens, GA.
A framed white caddie bib emblazoned with Burger’s name leans against the wall in the corner of Brewer’s office, but Burger takes up much more real estate here than that. The senior has been the face of Georgia women’s golf this year. Younger teammates call her “Grammy,” and there are a lot of those. Five freshmen joined the Georgia roster in the fall, and Burger, an athletic 5-feet-9-inch blonde, knew it was her responsibility to set an example for them.
When Burger found out that former head coach Kelley Hester wouldn’t return for Burger’s senior season, she sat down with Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity. Coaches and players around the country were turning heads at the change of leadership, and Burger turned out to be a steadying force for the Bulldog program.
“What can I do to make this a smooth transition?” she asked McGarity, searching for her role. It became one of caretaker. Burger eased Brewer’s transition, then absorbed some of former assistant coach Lindsay Hulwick’s responsibilities when she accepted the head coaching position at Denver mid-season.
“She’s been forced to grow up, probably faster than she should have,” Brewer said.
As for the caddie bib, it’s a relic left over from the U.S. Women’s Amateur, when Brewer carried his player’s bag through stroke-play qualifying. Burger didn’t make match play.
That tournament was one of the initial bonding moments for Brewer and Burger, but Burger says it wasn’t the first. Brewer showed up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links earlier in the summer, and Burger vividly remembers this line from dinner one night: “Even though you’re an All-American, I’m going to make you qualify.”
Player and coach have large personalities, and both recognize that those could have clashed. Instead, they turned out to be kindred spirits. Burger thrived in her final season at Georgia, and didn’t miss a tournament all season. In 10 starts, she had nine top 20s, five top 10s and two victories. She’s ranked No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“It’s just the way I wanted it,” Burger said of her senior season, and credits Brewer for part of that. “I’ve learned so much about my game this year.”
Unbelievably, this is Burger’s first trip to the NCAA Championship. Perhaps more unbelievably, Georgia hasn’t qualified as a team since Burger arrived on campus in 2009. There have been close calls, like in 2010 when it seemed certain Burger would qualify as an individual from the West Regional at Washington National Golf Club in Auburn, Wash., only to finish one shot outside the top two individuals.
Burger cried the whole way home.
“You can’t really explain it,” Burger said of that build-up and subsequent let-down.
She’s not often at a loss for words. Burger’s personality is large, her voice booming, her energy level high. Her golf vocabulary contains a most crucial line: “It’s just golf.”
The West Regional didn’t teach her that. Instead, Burger learned to prioritize life when her grandfather John Kicklighter passed away in February 2012. Kicklighter suffered a stroke that fall, and Burger watched him struggle with the after effects. She teed it up at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic not long after his death, setting out to simply play the game.
“I’ve always been so hard on myself, and I’ve realized that once you take the pressure off and you don’t think about golf, there’s other things in the world that are more stressful than golf,” Burger said.
Burger’s goal for her senior season was to make sure not one opportunity passed her by. In the process, she developed a reputation as a gutsy closer. She won last fall’s Mason Rudolph with birdies on two of her final three holes, and won the Bryan National Collegiate this spring by playing her final five holes in 4 under, a stretch that included an eagle at No. 17.
“She’s one of the better ball-strikers I’ve ever seen in women’s golf,” Brewer said.
That statement means a lot from a guy who spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach at USC, one of the perennial women’s golf powerhouses of the past decade.
The University of Georgia course favors a strong ballstriker like Burger, but maybe more importantly, it seems to favor a local player. Georgia players (Brendon Todd, Hudson Swafford, Russell Henley) have won the Web.com Tour’s Stadion Athens Classic at UGA each of the past three years. Brewer would like to see Burger take Georgia’s winning streak to four.
“It’s a ball-striker’s golf course,” Brewer said. “It’s a long, demanding course. Over four days, her game should hold up well.”
Burger grew up in Hoschton, Ga., about 45 minutes away from Athens. She carries a ratty Bulldog headcover she claimed at a University of Georgia golf camp as a 10-year-old (awarded to the “camper of the week”), but didn’t seriously take up the game until she was in seventh grade and sidelined from the softball field with a broken foot. Burger sustained that injury as she ran out of the dugout and rolled her foot on the pitcher’s mound.
The national championship is the end of the road for Burger’s amateur career, and a bittersweet ending as she plays without her team. She plans to turn pro when the tournament is over, play a summer of Symetra Tour events then try LPGA Q-School in the fall. That’s all secondary to the task at hand.
“I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to be here,” she said. “It’s my first national championship and my last time here.”