Oct. 14, 2006
by Jim Daves
Assistant Director of Athletics for Media Relations
A wise old coach once said that players are like flowers. Some bloom quicker than others. Sometimes you just have to be patient to get the results.
There are not a lot of "late bloomers" in the world of collegiate golf. The top junior players matriculate from their local club programs to state and regional competitions and then to the ranks of the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA). The really great ones find their way to the national-level amateur events run by the USGA.
Rankings are a big part of the sport. Typically, the best junior players are the ones who go on to reside near the top of the collegiate rankings.
That's what helps to make Virginia senior Leah Wigger's story special.
By her own admission, Wigger, a native of Louisville, Ky., was "probably more towards the middle of the pack" when it came to junior golf.
"I didn't play in that many AJGA events," Wigger said. "I had one really good tournament where I finished third and that qualified me for some better championships. I don't know what my ranking was, but I was a pretty average golfer in the AJGA."
Wigger was courted by a number of collegiate coaches, but she decided to take a risk and commit to Virginia and head coach Jan Mann. The risk? At the time, Virginia did not even have a program. When she enrolled in the fall of 2003, Wigger was going to be part of the first team the Cavaliers fielded.
"I actually thought it was a perk," said Wigger of the challenge Virginia presented. "I knew I would be able to play and not have to fight for a spot."
Mann says it was Wigger's overall athletic ability that convinced her she could eventually become a very good collegiate player.
"I hate to use the word potential, because I think it is heavily overused," Mann said. "She was not one of the kids who was heavily recruited, but you just saw she had the ability to be a very good player."
The first year went about as expected. The team placed in the bottom half of most of its tournaments and was seventh in the seven-team field at the ACC Championship.
"The first year was very hard, because I would get very angry at myself for making a mistake on the golf course," Wigger said. "Coach helped me to realize that was not going to help me play any better. Being more relaxed and more accepting of bad shots is what has helped me. I started playing better."
So did the team. The following year the Cavaliers pulled off a stunning finish to the season, qualifying for the NCAA Championships where Wigger finished as the runner-up for medalist honors.
"Was I surprised by that, well yes and no," said the psychology major. "I had finished second at the NCAA Regional and that gave me a lot of confidence going into the NCAAs. But, going into it, if you told me I was going to finish second, I don't think I would have believed you."
Wigger carried the momentum of her sophomore campaign into a stellar performance last year. She became the program's first All-American after piling up 10 top-10 finishes, including a ninth-place showing in her second trip to the NCAA Championship. That outing was bittersweet, because she played as an individual. The Cavaliers failed to return as a team, losing a playoff at the NCAA East Regional to Alabama for the final berth into the field.
"To lose in a playoff, when one more shot would have gotten us in, that was hard to swallow," Wigger said. "We have all talked about it, and it's only going to help us this year to be mentally tougher."
Recognized by both Golfweek and Golf World as one of the preseason top-10 players in the nation, Wigger, and the Cavaliers, started the fall portion of the schedule with impressive showings in two of the top collegiate events. Wigger was the runner-up at the Fall Preview, considered the top fall college tournament. Played at the site of this year's NCAA Championship, Wigger is shooting for a return trip in the spring with her teammates.
"It has been unbelievable to go from nothing your first year and basically finishing last at every tournament to qualifying for the NCAAs," Wigger said. "It says a lot about your coach and the goals she has and how hard working everyone on the team has been. We all work to accomplish the same goals. It is amazing to see how far we've come, but we can also get better."
Wigger has come a long way since she first knocked around a plastic ball as a three-year old while accompanying her dad, Tom, at Louisville's Audubon Country Club.
On a personal level, Wigger is looking to improve her short game this year. As for learning to stay patient and controlling her emotions, that is constantly on her mind.
"It took me a long time, and I'm still working on (being patient)," Wigger said. "It goes back to coach teaching me that golf is not a game where you can be perfect. I need to learn to let go of the bad shots, because there are plenty of holes out there where I can get that shot back."
As she heads into the twilight of her collegiate career, it has become evident that Wigger is more than just a late bloomer.
"Coach calls me `Biscuit,'" Wigger said. "She says I'm a diamond in the rough, like Seabiscuit."
It sure sounds a lot better than chrysanthemum.