After controversy, Emily Nash at peace as she prepares for 1st USGA event

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

After controversy, Emily Nash at peace as she prepares for 1st USGA event

Junior

After controversy, Emily Nash at peace as she prepares for 1st USGA event

Yes, she still hears it: Are you that girl…

Just a couple of weeks ago, Emily Nash was in Lunenburg, Mass., at her home course, Settlers Crossing, when a person recognized her that way. Bob Nash, Emily’s father, notes that everywhere they go it still seems like somebody recognizes his daughter for what happened.

He adds, though, that time has soothed the unrest.

“It’s really calmed down a lot,” Bob said.

That’s good, because it couldn’t have gotten much more chaotic.

Nash, 17, became the face of one of golf’s most potent controversies last year. She was playing for Lunenburg High School’s boys team in late October when she finished first in the Central Massachusetts Division 3 boys’ golf tournament but was denied the win (and a spot in the boys individual state championship). According to Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, “Girls playing on a fall boys’ team cannot be entered in the Boys Fall Individual Tournament. They can only play in the Boys Team Tournament.”

Thus, her total only counted toward team score, not the individual race. She was denied the first-place trophy.

The news of Emily’s snub exploded in the golf world – complete with a Twitter hashtag, #EmilyWon – and the situation avalanched. Several LPGA players strongly voiced their displeasure at the decision on social media. The LPGA even put together a video for social media where players offered messages of support to Emily. The story was in the news seemingly everywhere.

Back at Lunenburg High School, the center of the story kept getting comments from classmates about seeing her name on TV.

“Mostly my close friends just kept saying I was like a famous person,” Emily said with a laugh.

On the other side, there were the skeptics. Bob had wished to stay above the fray, but as the story spiraled he noticed a Golf Channel thread where commenters were barking that this was all planned.

They claimed Emily had played the event from tees ahead of the boys. (In fact she’d played the exact same tees as her other competitors.) They surmised Emily knew the rules going in and wanted to start a fuss. (Emily says she didn’t know the rule about the win not counting.) And they accused Bob of rigging the situation in the first place to get his daughter attention and a college scholarship. (Bob is baffled by this devious mastermind theory: “I couldn’t have created that firestorm even if I tried!”)

Bob responded on the thread, politely pointing out the truth. The Nash clan – which also includes, Kerry, Bob’s wife and Emily’s mother, and Emily’s 15-year-old brother Robbie – hadn’t sought this attention and they didn’t devise this situation. If anything, the whirlwind left a teenager having to battle through to the other side.

“It was difficult to deal with,” Emily said. “But it worked out OK.”

In this Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, photo, Lunenburg High School's Emily Nash tees off during the Central Massachusetts Division 3 boys' golf tournament at Blissful Meadows in Uxbridge, Mass. Nash, who had the best score at a boys' golf tournament in Massachusetts, has been denied the trophy because she's a girl. (Christine Peterson/Worcester Telegram & Gazette via AP)

Emily Nash tees off during the Central Massachusetts Division 3 boys’ golf tournament. (Christine Peterson/Worcester Telegram & Gazette via AP)

Indeed, six months later little appears to be out of place. Thanks to passing through a qualifier in October, Emily is embarking this week on a trip to El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., to play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball – the teenager’s first career USGA start.

Action commences Saturday, and those who underestimate Nash and partner Allison Paik this week could be in for a rude awakening. One of the unforeseen events that came out of the situation in October was Annika Sorenstam calling and offering Emily an exemption into the ANNIKA Invitational USA – a top-of-the-line event featuring several of the top players in girls junior golf.

She excitedly accepted the invite for the mid-January tournament. It would turn out to be a character-building week. She would open the event with a pair of rounds in the 90s and finished last by 20 shots.

Simply, her game didn’t feel right in St. Augustine, Fla. Focusing on too many tweaks in preparation had thrown her normally accurate swing off, the specter of how she got into the tournament loomed and the slow start to the week led her to force too much to happen in an attempt to play catch-up.

With a do-over, though, she still would’ve gone through that week.

“It’s definitely a great experience,” Emily said.

“We’ve talked about it, she wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Bob added. “Everybody has bad tournaments, but the lessons she came out of there with were just great.”

Among those were that taking a breather isn’t the end of the world. Emily has been known never to take a day off from golf, but as Sorenstam talked to players during a clinic at the event, it struck the teenager when the Swede said she would take breaks from golf even when she was World No. 1.

So Emily didn’t touch her clubs for the two weeks after that tournament. The refreshed player got her swing back on track when she resumed.

Also, as girls that week drove it well past her, it emboldened a belief that had been growing: Nash needed more distance. Yes, she was deadly accurate – known often not to miss a single fairway in a round – but she was lagging behind in power.

So, she’s stepped up. Nash has worked in recent months with her main swing instructor Lee Khang, the father of LPGA player Megan Khang, and incorporated a move in which the pupil pushes off the ground and pops up right at impact (similar to how Rory McIlroy does it). She’s also specified her workouts. Nash now goes three times a week to a personal trainer where workouts are golf-specific and focused around flexibility, strength and speed.

The dividends thus far have been a significantly higher ball flight and a 10-yard gain (at least) in distance that has her catching up to some of her competitors. If there were any lingering doubts about Nash’s mojo, she’s quelled those in recent starts. An appearance on April 14 at the FCWT Open at Red Tail Golf Club in Devens, Mass., netted a tie for sixth.

Days later at the Challenge Cup Championship at Alpine Country Club in Cranston, R.I., Nash fought through on a crazy weather day that included hail. She grinded to a 3-over 75 and eventually lost the title in a playoff to Angela Garvin.

But her progress has been unmistakable.

“The good news is she’s right back to where she was,” Bob said.

Emily Nash walks off of the 11th green during the final round of the ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex at World Golf Village, Slammer & Squire Course. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

The Class of 2019 prospect, ranked 366th overall in the Golfweek Girls Junior Rankings, has caught the attention of some Division I college coaches with her game. As it stands currently, Nash is in contact with a handful of Division I schools, mainly in North Carolina as that’s mostly where she wants to end up. She’s keeping the identity of the schools close to the vest right now, but a commitment likely isn’t too far off.

As Bob jokes, Emily’s experience last fall could make for a killer admissions essay.

After all, the full scope of it was beyond bizarre.

The tournament itself that October day was actually pretty uneventful. After finishing first, Emily texted her dad to say that she won. When she sent a follow-up message to clarify that due to rules she in fact wasn’t the boys victor, her dad nonchalantly responded, All right, great. I’ll see you at dinner.

As they talked about the round over dinner though, his phone buzzed. It was a friend messaging if Bob had seen this, pointing out an article where comments had been made about the injustice of Emily not winning.

“I told my wife, ‘This is going to go crazy,'” Bob said. “And sure enough, it did.”

There was the social media onslaught thereafter, but the Nashs kept getting contacted from everywhere. Bob, who owns a Mobil 1 Lube Express and Classic Car Wash in Leominster just miles from their Lunenburg home, had to take a week off from work because his phone would not stop ringing. Messages on social media poured in and reporters would be banging on the family’s door as late as 9:30 p.m.

Bob got calls from attorneys wanting to represent Emily if the family wished to sue, and the American Civil Liberties Union kept getting in touch because they felt there was a Title IX violation and they would advocate if the Nashs wanted to push the issue.

Ellen, The Today Show, Good Morning America and Megyn Kelly Today were among those that wanted Emily on their shows.

But the family didn’t wish to capitalize on the attention. They had no hard feelings, so suing was a laughable suggestion. They politely declined those national interview requests. Emily did interviews with outlets the family trusted, but generally they tried to lay low.

“My goals in life are around golf, so I was like I don’t know if flying out to California for Ellen would really benefit me that much,” Emily said.

About a week after the news exploded, Emily and Bob were on their way to a tournament of hers. At a stop sign a mile from the course, they were casually waiting when a car plowed into the back of Bob’s truck.

Police and ambulances soon arrived on the scene. Emily wasn’t hurt but she was too shook to play. For a rare time in her life, she got emotional as another crazy event made her wonder, Why does this keep happening to us?

What the Nashs gained, though, was a good deal of support. Positive messages and letters (roughly a couple dozen) flowed in, with Marilynn Smith, an LPGA legend and co-founder, and Cristie Kerr among those sending kind mail to Emily.

Gifts and offers arrived, too. The Nashs, while grateful, have been cautious in order to avoid complications with Emily’s amateur eligibility. Among the items sent to their house were hats, shirts, a stunning trophy worth nearly $200 and a check of roughly the same amount from a man who noted in the accompanying letter that Emily reminded him of his daughter and wanted her to use the money to go enjoy herself with friends.

They also got an offer from a trophy maker for a special trophy to be constructed for Emily.

The Nashs have not accepted any offers, and the gifts mainly still sit in their home untouched. They’re in the process of returning them but keep hearing conflicting information on the rules. (Emily has responded to letters, though, to show gratitude.)

They were, however, able to clear the trophy they received going to Lunenburg High School.

That trophy sits in a display case at the school. That case commemorating Emily’s achievements regarding that October event also includes her MIAA sportsmanship award plaque, a separate trophy from the tournament director and a pair of newspaper articles about what unfolded.

The specter of whether another situation in Massachusetts high school golf could pop up like this still remains. David Keir, the chairman of the MIAA golf committee, confirmed to Golfweek that no decisions have yet been made.

He said changes to the rule that cost Emily a win could be coming for the fall. But meetings among the golf committee, a subcommittee, a blue-ribbon task force and the MIAA Board of Directors still remain. A decision likely will be coming in June.

While Bob harbors no ill feelings about how October’s tournament went down, he couldn’t help but point out the decision doesn’t seem that difficult.

“It’s really not as complicated as they’re making it,” Bob said. “All they had to do was just I think whoever won the tournament, just acknowledge whoever won the tournament and I think the whole thing would’ve just went away.”

Bob noted that early on, fellow golf parents weren’t sure if they could bring up what happened in October to him because they figured it was a sensitive topic. But father and daughter have never felt that way: they’ve been fine talking about it with other parents and players, and characterize the whole ordeal as a non-issue.

Overall, they are looking forward. Nash and Paik aren’t putting too much emphasis on this week but the hope is to make it through stroke-play qualifying to match play, from where anything can happen.

They feel it will be a good experience regardless, but dad notes with a drop of pride that his daughter thrives in this high-powered environment.

“Usually in big events, Emily steps up,” Bob said.

Considering what she’s tackled already, that sounds about right.

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