Whitney Neuhauser stood over her second shot in a playoff for the state championship and committed the golfer’s ultimate sin. She doubted.
The ball was 112 yards from the cup, a distance that was between clubs for her.
“I wasn’t sure if I should hit a pitching wedge, which I usually hit about 110 yards, or a 9 iron, which usually goes 120 yards,” Neuhauser says. With the adrenaline pumping in the excitement of a big match—the Virginia State Golf Association’s amateur championship—she went with the wedge.
“Luckily, it ended up 5 inches from the hole, so I guess it was a good decision, in hindsight,” recalls Neuhauser, a fourth-year foreign affairs major.
That shot clinched the title in a July duel with UVA teammate Lauren Greenlief, a 20-hole final that featured 13 birdies between them. That shot also symbolized the confidence and maturity that has allowed Neuhauser to overcome momentary qualms and trust her abilities.
“Golf really is a game of confidence—I know that’s a cliché that a lot of people say, but it really is,” she says. “You have to trust yourself and you have to trust your abilities, and that was something that came with maturity for me.”
Confidence began to click at the 2008 ACC championships, where the team lost by a single stroke to top-ranked Duke. It continued to build last fall, when Neuhauser advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and later set a UVA tournament scoring record with an 8-under 208 at the Charleston, S.C., Cougar Classic. At midseason, she was named Most Improved Player in the Nation by GolfWorld magazine and by the end of the year had improved her stroke average from 77.54 the previous season to 72.93, the best on the team.
Now she’s the team captain, and head coach Kim Lewellen says Neuhauser definitely has “it.”
“As coaches, you are always looking for that ‘it’ that takes an athlete to the next level, and she has the ‘it,’” Lewellen says. “I also call that ‘heart.’ She never gives up. If she starts off struggling on the course, she always turns it around and finds a way to get the ball in the hole. You see the best players in the game that have that heart.”
Neuhauser picked up the game at age 12, late in life compared with other top golfers. But she grew up in an athletic environment—her sister, Jodi (Col ’05), rowed at UVA and her mother, Susan (Educ ’75), excelled at field hockey and lacrosse at James Madison University. Swimming, baseball and soccer dominated Whitney Neuhauser’s preteen years, but golf stole her heart after a round using her grandmother’s wooden clubs at Charlottesville’s McIntire Park.
“I had been playing baseball, so I had an ugly, atrocious golf swing at the beginning,” she recalls. “But I made it work and just kind of fell in love.”
Lessons from Kandi Comer, director of a golf academy at Glenmore Country Club, helped turn her swing from beastly to beautiful, and in 2005 she was named VSGA junior golfer of the year. At UVA, with the help of Lewellen, Neuhauser’s maturity has blossomed.
“My first and second years, part of why I wasn’t playing well was because I was letting my emotions get in the way. When I would hit bad shots, I would get mad, and it would kind of build on itself,” Neuhauser says. “Now, I think I’ve matured to a point where I can use bad shots to learn from them and do it differently next time.”
After graduating in May, she hopes to turn pro and eventually join former teammate and best friend Leah Wigger (Col ’07) on the LPGA tour. More immediate goals loom, however, and with teammates like second-year Greenlief, who won the VSGA Women’s Stroke Play Championship in July, and third-year Calle Nielson, an All-ACC selection last season, Neuhauser hopes to lead UVA to a national title.
“Honestly, I feel like we have one of the best teams in the country. There’s really no reason, if we play our best, that we can’t beat anybody.”
Lewellen sees the same for Neuhauser individually.
“She will say, ‘Watch this, coach.’ That means she is about to turn it up a notch, and she inevitably does,” Lewellen says. “Not many athletes can do that, just the best, and she is clearly in that company.”