GREENWOOD - In August 2010, Lander University announced that it was adding women's golf to its athletics program. And the Lady Bearcats competed as a team in a tournament for the first time this February. But the birth of the program really occurred years ago with seeds that Chipper Bagwell may not have even realized he was planting.
Lander's first-year team includes sophomores Ashley Shinn (Gainesville, Fla.) and Rachel Uremovich (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) and freshmen Dea Mahendra (Jakarta, Indonesia), Mariana Martins (Coimbra, Portugal) and Valentina Bueno (Trujillo, Peru).
The Lady Bearcats started off very well, placing ninth out of 18 teams at the Tusculum Invitational Feb. 4-5 at Kiawah Island, S.C.
The first-year team hopes to build on that success when the 2012 season continues beginning Sunday at the Newberry Classic at Hilton Head Island.
The groundwork was unknowingly being laid for the women's team when Bagwell was actually preparing for the 2005 re-birth of the Lander men's program.
"It's a small world," Bagwell said. "Back probably seven or eight years ago, I was recruiting for the men's team, watching some guys playing in a junior tournament up at Clemson. This lady stopped and asked me something, maybe what time it was, and we started chatting. It just so happens it was Ashley Shinn's mom.
"Ashley was playing in the tournament. She was probably 13, 14 years old at that time. I told her (mom) where I was from and that we were starting a men's program, but that we didn't have a women's program. But we were probably going to have a women's program eventually."
Bagwell said he and Shinn's mother kept in touch. Meanwhile, Ashley continued to excel in junior golf and was named Golfweek magazine National Player of the Week in September 2006. Eventually, she would sign with Division I Western Carolina and played there for one year.
"So when it was announced that we were going to have a women's team, her mom sent me an e-mail and wanted to know if I would be interested in Ashley coming here (to Lander)," Bagwell said. "I remembered that she was a very good junior player.
"We chatted and they came down for a visit and they liked it. She has some grandparents who live out on the lake here. It was convenient and maybe it was a little luck."
Having to sit out one year due to transfer rules, the Floridian is entering her third semester at Lander and is now eligible to play.
"She's a good player," Bagwell said. "We will have her for three seasons and I look for her to get her game back. We expect good things out of her."
Bagwell's early contacts also indirectly led him to Lander's other sophomore Uremovich, who won the South Carolina Amateur Match Play championship at age 13, was the Carolinas Junior Player of the Year in 2006, and qualified for the U.S. Junior Girls Amateur in 2008. She also tied for second place in the Class AAA state tournament as a junior competing for Hilton Head High School.
"She is from Hilton Head and signed with UNC Greensboro," the coach said. "I had known her dad for a long time. He's the head pro at Old South Golf Links. We used to go down there and I would call him, not knowing anything about Rachel, and he would always take care of us.
"I have another friend who is a pro at Boscobel and he is friends with Rachel's dad. And he called me one day and said, 'would you be interested in Rachel Uremovich going to school there?' I said that I would. He said she was looking to leave Greensboro. Her dad and mom came down and she liked it here.
"That's two Division I transfers that we got that can play at a high level. So we have some experience on our team already. That worked out perfectly for us, getting those two."
Mahendra and Martins were recruited with phone calls.
"I talked to some Division I coaches, telling them we were starting a new program," Bagwell said. "Some Division I coaches gave me their names and told me they were good players. I got in touch with them and it all worked out. One of them is from Indonesia (Mahendra) and one is from Portugal (Martins). They are very good players. They can have a good four-year career here."
Bueno was the last recruit.
"A Division I coach gave me her name late in the process," the coach said. "She has some relatives who live in Augusta, which is sixty miles from here. She visited here and liked it, and she is a real good player too. So we have five players who can put up some good scores."
Mahendra represented the Lady Bearcats well in the school's first tournament where they competed as individuals, placing fourth overall in a 22-player field at the Badin Golf Resort in Badin, N.C., in September.
Mahendra fired a two-day total of 154, placing only six strokes behind co-champions Chelsea Demers and Steph Peareth of Pfeiffer.
Mahendra placed 16th out of 90 players in the Southern Shootout hosted by Birmingham Southern College in Alabama in October, shooting a two-day total of 152.
The team then made an impression with its ninth place finish at the Tusculum Invitational. Lynn University won the team competition with a low 6-over-par 582, while Lander finished with a 637. Martins tied for 16th with 154 (80-74); Bueno tied for 36th with 160 (79-81); Shinn tied for 40th at 161 (79-82); Mahendra tied for 43rd at 162 (79-83) and Uremovich tied for 57th at 168 (83-85).
"I told them we were making history," Bagwell said. "The odd thing is the first time we had a regular season tournament for our men was at Kiawah Island seven years ago (September 2005). And the first season that we have a women's program, we play at Kiawah Island. We played on the same course. It just kind of happened that way. Both teams started seven years apart at the same course."
Bagwell was pleased that the team finished so respectably at Kiawah Island.
"We had four rounds in the 70s out of 10 (rounds)," he said. "As we grow and get a little better, I look for those scores to come down even lower. I thought we did well. A lot of coaches said, 'you have a good team. You have some good ball strikers.' And all five of them did strike the ball really well.
"If we had any shortcomings, it was probably our short game. But that will come with a little work and more experience. Most of those schools have had teams for a long time and we just show up and finish in the middle of the pack. I think we will see some good things out of these girls the rest of this season."
The Newberry Invitational is followed by four more tournaments leading up to the Peach Belt Conference Tournament to be played at Calloway Gardens in Georgia beginning April 9. Bagwell said UNC Pembroke is the highest ranked team in the PBC, and that the Lady Bearcats have already competed against them.
"We actually beat them in one round down in Kiawah by two or three strokes," he said. "In the second round, they beat us and moved ahead of us in the standings by a place or two (Pembroke finished tied for sixth).
"Armstrong Atlantic had the medalist in that Kiawah tournament (and finished fifth). Columbus State has had a team for a few years now. Montevallo and North Georgia have teams," Bagwell said of the Peach Belt. "I think we can be in the middle up in the league right off the bat."
The young players who are forming the foundation of the program all have good careers ahead of them, Bagwell said.
"I believe we have a good foundation. Hopefully we can bring in one or two next year and have seven players on the team. I like the five that we have right now. They are all committed. We work out at 6:15 every morning. We are running and lifting weights, and we practice in the afternoons. They are golfers and they are good students. They finished second out of all our teams in GPA (grade-point average) in the first semester. I was real pleased with that."