Girls Golf: Road to Redemption
By BRANDON HURLEY
A certain level of comfort flows over Rachael Danielson when she makes her way to the tee box.
The years of pain, disappointment and moments when she couldn’t even swing a club disappear.
As simple as the game of golf may seem on the outside, it is one of the more mentally exhausting and grueling sports there is. The game builds trust, muscle memory, strategy, and above all else – patience.
In a way, learning to slow her mind became the former three-time state qualifier’s most vital attribute following a disappointing close to her Greene County career.
The Central College freshman knew there was more to be obtained than near misses and constantly rehabbing a nagging knee injury. She wanted to succeed while making a difference, which made her withdrawal from the 2018 Iowa state tournament in June all the more frustrating. It lit a fire.
That spark led her to a surprising impact as a rookie on the Central golf team, earning freshman of the year and most improved honors while helping the Dutch to a conference title.
The late-career struggles in Jefferson hampered by several knee surgeries, paved a new path, one that guided Danielson to the cozy confines of Pella and Division III golf.
“It was tough for a short time because I had a goal I wanted to accomplish at the state tournament, but I knew even being able to swing a club was a long shot,” Danielson said, reminiscing on last spring’s short-lived state tournament. “I did not dwell at all at the fact of me having to pull out of the tournament. I will focus on the fact that I was able to perform at a very high level with significant handicap full of roadblocks and very little ability to practice.”
Danielson is the only three-time state qualifier in Greene County history, and was a beacon of talent for the Ram program throughout her career. She won a handful of conference titles along the way and earned a number of all-state recognition. Her time in west central Iowa will stick with her forever.
“I am more proud of myself with the way I was able to play in the qualifying rounds than if I were actually able to make top three at state without the significant knee surgery I had,” Danielson said. “And once I had graduated I knew I had bigger dreams and goals in front of me.”
As Danielson turned her attention to a college career and enrolled at Central, another round of rehab ensued. At this point, after four surgeries and grueling roads to recovery, her patience was starting to wear thin. As she picked up from hundreds of rounds she had played on the local links, it was time for her to push herself and see where the sport she loved could take her. Danielson strived to come back healthy in time for Central’s season-opening tournament in late August.
“I knew I had to trust myself and the path I was going down. Being patient with my knee and how much I was able to practice and to what intensity,” Danielson said. “Also, I was completely at the mercy of my knee so I knew I could only do what it wanted me to do. The hardest part was being patient because I was in very unknown territory, but I knew the process wasn’t going to be perfectly linear and I had to accept that.”
Finally feeling rejuvenated, Danielson found herself back on the course just a few months after graduation, ready to begin her college career. Her past hurdles and successes braced her for an onslaught of nerves as she teed off at the Mount Mercy Invitational in Cedar Rapids. She tapped into that comfort, along with a bit of help from an outside source, ready to make the leap to the next level. Admittedly, this tournament had a little bit of a different feel to it. Finally healthy again, it was time for redemption, but not without a few tense moments on the first tee.
“Honestly, I was absolutely terrified. It was certainly a different feeling, but at the end of the day it’s just 18 more holes in front of you that you have to go figure out,” Danielson said. “My coach (Tim Wilkinson) was very helpful in telling me that (it) would be the hardest tournament of my career, which was surprisingly comforting. I was happy with the way I reacted to the pressure and knew after the tournament I was capable of the success I can accomplish.”
The pre-tournament nerves did little to rattle the freshman, as she carded a dazzling 18-hole score of 82 to finish in a tie for 10th, which remains her career best round.
That moment allowed Danielson to unlock her natural talent she’d been holding onto for months. She was later awarded the team’s Most Valuable Freshman and Most Improved Player for her breakout season. Danielson produced the fourth best scoring average among the Dutch squad this fall, 88.82 strokes per 18-hole round. She was one of only four golfers to play 11 rounds, shooting a low score of 82 on several different occasions.
Danielson’s 16th place finish a few months later in Decorah helped power the Central College Dutch women’s golf team to the first ever American Rivers Conference tournament title (formerly known as the Iowa Conference), securing victory in a sudden-death playoff over the University of Dubuqe. The October triumph was the Dutch’s second league championship in three years and 10th overall, helping validate Danielson’s recovery efforts.
“I would not have wanted to win it any other way or with any other teammates because then it would have been too easy,” Danielson said. “I took the underdog mindset into the season, and especially that tournament, to eliminate the fear of the opportunity.”
Danielson continued her stellar rookie campaign by compiling a three round score of 258 at the conference tourney.
She owed the success to the grueling process, one that led her to some fairly low points and significant highs. Without the injuries, the title wouldn’t be as nearly gratifying, she said. It all came down to staying calm, releasing years of pent up frustration.
“That moment felt like a culmination of four years of blood, sweat and tears that just paid off in a way that was so immense I couldn’t have even dreamed that big,” Danielson said. “It meant everything I wen’t through was worth it. And the way it ended was unprecedented.”
Danielson also helped spark Central’s fifth-place finish at Intercollegiate Invitational at Whistling Straits in late October. The talented freshman compiled a two-day score of 192, the third best cumulative score among Central golfers, good enough to place 24th overall.
The Dutch finished fifth out of six teams with a score of 722.
Whistling Straits outside of Kohler, Wisconsin is the future site of the 2020 Ryder Cup and has been home to three PGA Championships. The course was designed by Pete Dye in 1998 on the banks of Lake Michigan. The high school courses of Iowa, while still well kept and challenging, didn’t quite compare to the championship-level atmosphere of Whistling Straits. While it was a beauty to take in, the layout takes its toll on unsuspecting golfers, Danielson said.
“The grounds immediately transport you to the Irish countryside and there’s nothing like it,” Danielson said. “It was by far the hardest course I have ever played but it was a big time opportunity.
I obviously didn’t shoot as well as I would have liked, but I had to just step back and realize where I was at; and the sheep on the course certainly helped with the frustrations.”
Central head coach Tim Wilkinson awarded six varsity letters at the team’s recent awards banquet with four letter-winners set to return in 2019. He had little trouble anointing Danielson as his top freshman, and certainly noticed her progression throughout the fall, especially so quickly after yet another knee injury.
“I was not surprised by Rachael’s success on the course because I knew how much she cared about the game, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well she rebounded from her latest knee surgery,” the coach said. “You never know how athletes will respond to rehab and she was unsure how much she would be able to do. So the fact she played in all of our fall events and didn’t miss any action was impressive.”
Outside of recovering from yet another injury setback, Danielson said college golf needs much more focus than high school competition. She can no longer rely on pure talent guiding her through meets.
“I think college golf requires much more awareness and attention to detail because of what is on the line,” the former Ram said. “And in my case, I am no longer just playing for myself and my reputation, I play for my teammates, my coach and Central.”
Tasting a bit of success not even a full year in helps the transition as well. The Dutch will do battle in the NCAA Division III Championships May 14-17 at Bay Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas. It’s Central’s second appearance thanks to October’s conference championship.
The road to redemption will finally be complete this spring, shaking off that pesky knee injury and disappointing finishes.
“I will get a chance to look back and see the path that has led me to Houston because it is one I never saw coming but will never forget,” Danielson said. “Also, going to Nationals as a freshman in any sport is pretty cool and I will enjoy the opportunity with my great teammates and coach.”
Nationals will be yet another chance for Danielson to drink in the riches of competing at a high level. She’s already cherished each time she’s donned the red and white of Central College.
“I have loved everything from long intense practices to emotional roller coasters the sport brings,” Danielson said. “The worst part is that we can’t fly to somewhere warm and play for three months in the winter.”
Wilkinson envisions a high ceiling for his freshman golfer. Danielson should develop into one of the best golfers on the team once its all said and done.
“I believe that Rachael’s upside is unlimited,” the coach said. “She is capable of being a top player in our conference and I am excited to see her improvement this spring. Rachael would be the first person to tell you that putting in work during the off-season is where she will see the most improvement. She now has an understanding of the quality of golf and ability of those she is competing against and what it takes to compete at this level and be successful.”