College golf’s most decorated couple wins NAIA titles

College golf’s most decorated couple wins NAIA titles

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College golf’s most decorated couple wins NAIA titles

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Julia McQuilken’s dating criteria isn’t like that of most girls.

“To have somebody who is competitive is big for me,” she said of boyfriend Sean Elliott. “He betters me as a person and on the golf course.”

McQuilken, 20, and Elliott, 21, are college golfers at Dalton State, a Dalton, Ga., based school that competes at the NAIA level. Their relationship has been instrumental in their individual success, and key in growing a young Roadrunner program.

For McQuilken, the most challenging part of this game is harnessing inner demons. She struggled to stay mentally calm on the golf course early in the year, often feeling her head and heart racing if a round began to go south.

“I would just start to blow up,” she said. “In the middle of the round, I would hit one bad shot and just start freaking out.”

McQuilken was able to turn a corner as the season wore on, and her results showed it. The junior from Tampa Bay, Fla., was one shot short of the 2015 Southern States Athletic Conference Championship but a month later won the NAIA Women’s Golf National Championships by five shots. Her individual play had been instrumental in helping Dalton State earn the conference title and a runner-up finish at the NAIA Championship in its maiden season. McQuilken ended the season a first-team All-America selection.

How could things get better?

Well, a week later, Elliott, of Westfield, N.J., notched another national title for the Roadrunners.

Elliott’s eight-shot victory at the NAIA Men’s Golf National Championship capped an even more impressive campaign. The sophomore counted the conference championship (the team won, too) among his three season titles and put together an NAIA-best 70.67 season stroke average. He was the NAIA Jack Nicklaus Award winner as the top player in his division.

“Two years ago, Dalton State didn’t even have an athletic department,” said Ben Rickett, director of golf at Dalton State. Now it has two national champions in golf.

Elliott and McQuilken have made similar journeys to the top of their sport.

Elliott played for the University of Central Missouri, a Division II school, during the 2011-12 season but something didn’t fit. He practiced furiously for the next year at home while he pondered turning professional, and then thought about entering a Professional Golf Management program.

When Elliott’s mother moved to Atlanta in 2013, he decided he wanted to be nearby. That’s when he met with Coastal Georgia coach Mike Cook, who told Elliot he didn’t have any more room on his team. Cook then pointed Elliott toward Rickett, a former Division I golfer and assistant coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who had signed on as director of Dalton State’s entire infant golf operation as well as head coach of a men’s squad that would get its first season of eligibility in 2014-2015. Elliott first visited Dalton State in October 2013, arrived at the school in the spring of 2014 and began competing for the team in the fall.

“From the minute I met Ben, I looked up to him as a role model on the golf course,” Elliott said. “He had something there I didn’t. It was clear he could help me get to the next level.”

McQuilken, meanwhile, began her career at the Division I level, competing for the University of North Florida during the Fall 2012 semester before transferring to Seminole State, a junior college in Sanford, Fla. She finished her only season there ranked No. 6 in the national JUCO polls.

When McQuilken heard of Dalton State, the idea of a first-year program with a roster made from scratch intrigued her. She quickly fell in love with the school, and coach Jim McGrew was a positive influence that further convinced her to make the move.

McQuilken and Elliott met at the beginning of last August, and from the outset, it was a relationship born of rivalry.

“The first time I really got to know her was on the golf course,” Elliott said. “We played a round and she just went and teed it up right from the back with the other guys we were playing with. She shot 1 under and I shot 2 under. I wasn’t sure if I could beat this girl.”

Within weeks, McQuilken and Elliott were dating, and the competition was on. Throughout the fall, they would play together after team practice. Most spring days were spent at the golf course from 1 p.m. until dark.

“As Sean says, ‘There are no days off in the life of a champion,’” McQuilken said.

Dual practices were filled with competitions, from closest-to-the-pin contests to exhausting drill sets on and around the greens.

The couple would set up four or five tees in one-yard increments from 3 feet to 15 feet with the idea of draining every putt from each distance consecutively and making it all the way up the ladder. They would need to complete this drill three to five times.

Their coaches noticed.

“One doesn’t want to let the other one get the upper hand,” McGrew said. “It helps to have that to challenge each other, they’ll always have little bets going on between themselves about the loser having to do certain things.”

The bets came to a head at nationals. McQuilken asked if Elliott would take her to Disney World if she finished in the top 5. He said yes, and followed through with a promise of a trip to Disney and Universal.

When it came to the bet for Elliott’s national-title shot, the stakes weren’t quite as friendly.

“When I went down to his tournament (at nationals), they stayed right on the beach, and there was this slingshot ride that throws you up in the air,” McQuilken explained. “I asked him to come on it with me and he told me he wouldn’t.”

It became the motivation – Elliott had to win to avoid that ride, and was glad he did.

“I’m absolutely terrified of heights, and that ride flings you, like, 100 yards up in the air,” he said. “That would just have been the death of me.”

• • •

The same motivation that drives McQuilken also hindered her. McGrew noted that McQuilken liked to play aggressively, but had the propensity to overreact to mistakes. That combination was most potent in March in the middle of the second round of the Seminole State Spring Break tournament during which McQuilken made a triple bogey that quickly soured her mood.

McGrew’s message that day was that she couldn’t keep doing that to herself.

“You’re too good to let one bad shot get you this way,” he remembers saying.

McQuilken heeded the advice, realizing she could recover from mistakes and fight back. She finished that round with a slew of birdies and kept the charging mindset in the face of adversity going forward. Combine that with her adoption of Elliot’s purposeful method of practice – which helped her simulate tournament pressure back home – and McQuilken was able to lighten her mood on the course.

Elliott, who faced similar issues in the fall, matured through the spring, too.

“He could become a very emotional golfer when things didn’t go his way,” Rickett said. “But he’s now figured out a way for those emotions to help him rather than hurt him. He’s matured and grown up so much in 14 months.”

Rickett helped Elliott change his thought process to erase an obsession on past shots and focus on making the right decisions. Elliott and McQuilken found peace of mind in the spring, and now are focused on following up on their successes.

McQuilken, majoring in business, actually has two years left at Dalton State. She has one more year of eligibility and will be a graduate assistant for the squad the following year. McQuilken hopes to make it as a professional golfer or a college coach after that. A career in real estate could be in the cards as well.

Elliott will compete in a number of big amateur events over the summer before returning for his junior season, and also harbors professional golfing dreams. Most recently, he took part June 6 in a five-man, 18-hole outing for a spot in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship. Elliott competed against the other four Nicklaus Award winners (one from each division of college golf) but came up four strokes short of the exemption.

Elliott is majoring in marketing and wants to remain in the golf industry.

Each player names the other as a constant source of motivation, whether it’s tournament results, practice habits or contests.

McQuilken and Elliott got a Boston Terrier named Maggie in the spring that they take care of together, and spend a lot of their spare time watching Netflix, side by side. Still, golf remains a prominent subject even outside of practice, and for this couple, that’s a good thing.

“It’s cool to have your significant other serious about golf,” Elliott said. “She’s right there by my side grinding it out and it’s great to have that and know what it takes for what we want to do.”

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