TAMARAC, Fla. – Kenzie Wright was in a leadership role at Alabama before she even knew her way around campus. Two tournaments after she transferred from SMU at the start of the 2018 fall season, Wright was part of a team that set an NCAA scoring record. Barely a month later, she was one of the oldest players left.
When Tide stars Kristen Gillman and Lauren Stephenson departed for the LPGA at the end of last fall, the team dynamic changed almost instantly.
“Last year was pretty rough on the girls who remained,” said head coach Mic Potter.
Potter was not particularly fond of the soundtrack – joking that if he and Wright butt heads on anything, it’s music – but Wright has led an admirable rebuilding effort.
Among the several choreographed videos on the “Golfing Gals RTR” (short for roll, Tide, roll) Instagram page is one in which Wright emerges from a doorway in a long hall of offices and dances toward the camera to “That Girl is Poison,” a 1990s hit by Bell Biv DeVoe. Her Tide teammates fall in step, and there’s maybe no better way to describe the real-life musical going on in Tuscaloosa.
“She came in very much a natural leader this year,” assistant coach Susan Rosensteil said. “I’m not sure that would have been her role.”
Leading the charge
For all the hamming she does on social media, Wright knows when to buckle down. She was paying close attention during the short time she had with Gillman and Stephenson.
“Even though it was for two tournaments, just being around them and watching how they practice was honestly the best thing I’ve been able to be a part of,” Wright said.
Potter has also played a big role in Wright’s development despite the relatively short amount of time she has spent at Alabama.
Conversations around game improvement can sometimes be daunting. When Wright and Potter sat down at the end of last year to see where she was losing shots, she thought a complete short-game overhaul was on the horizon. Potter wanted to see her control her distances better with a wedge in her hand and get more precise with trajectory and spin.
“It was basically making one or two more putts per round, maybe making an up-and-down a round,” Wright said. “In my head before that, I was thinking it was going to be a lot.”
Wright tracks progress in a category called “P6,” which essentially means making the putt each time you hit it to 6 feet. She completes a P6 90 percent of the time now (as opposed to 60 percent last spring) and has improved her scrambling percentage from roughly 60 percent last season to 85 percent this fall. Rosenstiel praises Wright’s ability to be realistic in her own assessment of her game. That alone has allowed for continuous improvement.
The time is now
This is exactly the time of year when all of those little shots count. The Dixie Women’s Amateur is one of the final events of the year where World Amateur Golf Ranking points are awarded, along with next week’s Joanne Winter Arizona Silver Belle (where Wright will also play). Wright was No. 145 in the WAGR at the start of the Dixie.
Come January, Augusta National Women’s Amateur invitations are awarded to the top 30 Americans in the ranking. Wright is roughly 30 spots short of the projected cut-off. The Dixie figures in prominently for ANWA hopefuls.
Wright has played the event each of the past two years, and at the end of the year a 48th-place finish will rotate out of her two-year rankings window.
“I shot 12 over here two years ago,” Wright said. “I was like, ‘If I shoot 12 over, I don’t even deserve to go to Augusta.’ I don’t have anything to lose – if I don’t play, I’d be mad if I didn’t make it.”
Augusta became real when she and her teammates huddled around the TV during last year’s final round and actually saw it happen. She and Tide junior Angelica Moresco, of Caldogno, Italy, vowed they’d be there next time, but it was still a long shot for Wright.
“I didn’t even think I’d have a chance,” she said. “That’s what’s so crazy. In April, I was like, I’m going to have to do a lot to be able to get there.”
Improving ranking, building confidence
A quarterfinal run at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, as the No. 445 player in the world, did a lot to improve her standing. Wright had never qualified for that event before this year and had never really seen herself on the same stage with the world’s best players.
In her quarterfinal match against eventual champion Gabriela Ruffels, Wright birdied four consecutive holes from Nos. 9 to 12 but only won one of them. They combined for 13 birdies in a match Ruffels won on the 17th hole at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Mississippi.
“That match really solidified it for me,” Wright said. “I played well the whole week, but that’s the one I remember. I know I deserve to be there, and I know I can compete with the best.”
These are big revelations for a player who, one year ago, saw her name on an Arnold Palmer Cup watch list and didn’t know how to handle it. Potter coached her to be less distractable, across the board. Wright is not exceptionally long and fell into the trap last season of feeling that she needed more power to seriously compete.
Wright shares a swing coach – Joey Wuertemberger – with LPGA rookie Cheyenne Knight, who turned professional after her junior year at Alabama in 2018 or would have overlapped Wright on the Tide roster. Knight inspired another Alabama team TV moment when she won the LPGA’s Volunteers of America Classic in October.
“Seeing Cheyenne go win a tournament where all these girls are out-driving her, I don’t need to worry about that,” Wright said of the “flashy” stuff. “Just stick with short game, make some putts, make some up and downs. That’s how you can beat them.”