Motivation and momentum have been keys to Kayla Smith’s success this past season. And that momentum carried forward this week when the rising senior from the University of North Carolina teed it up in her home state in the Carolina Golf Classic presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
Smith’s standout season earned her a spot in this week's event at Kinston Country Club. Between the Fall and Spring, the North Carolina native finished in the top 20 in six of eight collegiate events and ended the season with a stroke average of 73.13 - the second lowest in UNC women’s golf history.
So, when head coach, Aimee Neff, was given the opportunity to select one player to compete in this week's Epson Tour event, the decision was pretty easy. Neff is in her first year as head coach at UNC and it’s this new relationship that has sparked an increased amount of motivation for Smith.
When asked what flipped a switch in her golf performance, Smith quickly responded, “Obviously Coach has played a huge role in all of it. She’s so motivating just generally as a person. She constantly went out of her way to let us know we were appreciated and made it clear that she wants to see us succeed.”
This new mentorship helped Kayla rekindle a passion for the game and purpose to realize her potential. It also made the choice of caddie this week easy. Neff has traded in her coaching gear for a caddie bib. And while she’s feeling a little more weight on her shoulders, it’s a dynamic the two are very familiar with.
“During the season, she walked with me a lot. I feel like we work really well together. She’s extremely helpful with numbers and shot shaping, but also with keeping me emotionally stable. Coach can pick up on the times I need to calm down or when I need to get pumped up.”
For Neff, it’s good company, a good time, and a great experience to see one of her players tee it up at the next level. “Honestly, I am really grateful to just walk with her and see how she handles herself, her game and the opportunity. She’s fun to be around.”
After carding a three-over 74 in the first round, Smith may not have been all that fun to be around. With a 2:21 pm round one start time, she wasn’t left with much daylight to sharpen up on her game for the following day. Nor did she see much that needed to be improved. Missing only two greens, she felt good about her game. Perhaps the disappointing start stirred up enough emotions to fight back on day two.
On Friday morning, the dynamic duo walked briskly to a bogey-free 66. It’s rounds like those that motivate the Tar Heel to go to work and keep the momentum going. After her stellar round, Smith headed straight to the range to prepare for the weekend ahead.
“When I play a round like that and see what I am capable of, it only encourages me to improve and see how I can push past that and get even better.”
Neff looked on as her standout player passionately dug dirt on the range. “It’s really awesome to see her so motivated,” Neff said. “I love to see her putting in the work with passion. It’s that type of desire I look for in players.”
This week’s event has given Kayla a good taste of what could be in store for her once her days wearing Carolina Blue comes to a close. Smith knows she can compete on this level and says when the time comes, she’ll take the next step. As for now, it’s all gas and no brakes to keep up the momentum and motivation to play for her coach, teammates, and school.
As a former Tar Heel, I’m proud to watch these two take on the weekend in our home state.