Charlotte, N.C. – For those who remember Margaret Shirley competing at Auburn University from 2004-2008, this picture might seem a little fuzzy.
Except for the Crimson Tide of Alabama, perhaps no Southeastern Conference rival is loathed more for those alums and students bleeding orange and blue than the University of Georgia.
So seeing Shirley competing in this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at Charlotte Country Club decked out in Georgia red and black, and carrying a monogrammed golf bag featuring the same color schemes might be a bit alarming to some.
“I confuse a lot of people,” said the diminutive Shirley, a Roswell, Ga., native who helped Auburn win a pair of SEC titles (2005 and 2006) and finish third at the 2005 NCAA Division I Women’s Championship. “People say, ‘I thought you went to Auburn?’ I tell them I did.”
While Shirley looks back on her four years on The Plains with nothing but fond memories, post-college life has led the 24-year-old to Athens, Ga., and an assistant coaching position for Georgia.
Last summer, Georgia coach Kelley Hester contacted Shirley about her interest in coaching. With a fledgling professional career not producing overwhelming financial gains, Shirley jumped at the opportunity.
Her last professional round came at the 2009 Tennessee Women’s Open on July 18 and 13 days later, she officially put on a coach’s cap, accepting the position with a full blessing from Auburn women’s coach Kim Evans.
“I am just real happy for her,” said Evans. “I don’t give her a hard time for wearing red or the wrong color. Margaret was one of those kids when she came in who was an instant leader. You knew that’s the route she was going to take if she wanted to. It’s not weird for me.”
Added Shirley: “Kim helped me get the job. She was super-excited for me. I still talk to her a lot.”
Even if it means going after the same recruits.
Shirley should know. Both of her parents went to the University of Georgia, but she chose to play at Auburn “because it was the best fit for me. Coach Evans was awesome…I just love the place. I will always love Auburn.”
Of course, the ultra-competitive Shirley now wants to beat her ex-coach every time the schools face each other. It’s not that she roots against the Tigers – she wants Auburn to do well when Georgia isn’t in the field – but Shirley knows the job trumps any school allegiance.
Plus, Shirley has the freedom to still compete during the summer months when recruiting reaches its pinnacle.
Coming into the Women’s Amateur, Shirley had posted runner-up finishes in the Tennessee Women’s Open, Georgia Women’s Open and Georgia Women’s Amateur. In the latter two, she lost by one stroke to Georgia players Emilie Burger (Georgia Open) and Kendall Wright (Georgia Women’s Amateur). And at the Tennessee Women’s Open, ex-Auburn star Danielle Downey edged her in a playoff.
That momentum carried over to the Women’s Amateur, where Shirley carded a 2-under-par 70 in Monday’s opening round of stroke-play qualifying. She struggled a little on Tuesday, shooting an 80 that featured three blow-up holes – two double bogeys and a triple-bogey 7 at the par-4 18th (her ninth of the round), where she three-putted from 15 feet.
As she left the green visibly upset, a USGA official informed the group that they had missed their time at the checkpoint, and the threesome was now on the clock. Affected by the warning, Shirley proceeded to double bogey No. 1 and bogey No. 2 before settling down to shoot 1-under-par golf over the final seven holes.
Her 6-over 150 total was good enough to qualify for match play.
“I had a couple of brain cramps out there,” said Shirley. “Other than that, I am proud of myself on [my second nine].”
Interestingly enough, Shirley’s official reinstatement to amateur status came hours before her July 19 Women’s Amateur sectional qualifier at Brookfield C.C. in Roswell, Ga. A year earlier, Shirley had officially applied to be reinstated after making approximately $15,000 during a six-month pro career. She competed on the Suncoast Tour in Florida and in a few state opens, including Colorado, where she finished third. When Hester called about the assistant coaching position, Shirley immediately dropped her pro aspirations.
Because Shirley had not amassed much money as a professional, she only had to wait the minimum one year to regain her amateur status. But the clock started with her last professional round, which was July 18, 2009.
When she filed her entry for the Women’s Amateur, officials with the Georgia State Golf Association told Shirley that the July 19 sectional wouldn’t be a problem. But as the qualifying date neared, Shirley still had not received the official notification from the USGA. The letter finally arrived at 10 p.m. on July 18, and she didn’t open it until the following day.
Since then, Shirley has played some of her best golf, not only qualifying for a fifth Women’s Amateur, but also recording the three aforementioned runner-up finishes.
“I’m sure Coach Evans is wondering where it was in college,” said Shirley. “My golf swing is better than it was in college. It’s more repeatable now.
“I played real well [on Monday]. I have no expectations. I am not supposed to play well. I am not practicing every day. I am watching a lot more golf than playing it.”
Added Evans, who is at the Women’s Amateur recruiting and watching current (Cydney Clanton) and past (Shirley and Candace Schepperle) Auburn players: “I’m not surprised [at her performance]. Margaret will always play golf. She’ll knock you down to win. For me, I want warrior types.”
As a player at Auburn, Shirley was one player who didn’t mind taking a leadership role, whether it was gathering teammates for meetings or sending out e-mail messages from the coaching staff.
Those organizational skills certainly have helped Shirley during her rookie year on the job in 2009-10. Just knowing the NCAA rules, especially those involving recruiting, requires lots of study and preparation.
While Shirley has spent time on the road this summer recruiting, Hester has done most of the heavy lifting. Hester attended the U.S. Girls’ Junior at The Country Club of North Carolina three weeks ago and flew this past week to the British Girls’ Open Amateur at Royal Belfast Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
Still, Shirley observes and absorbs everything as if back in an Auburn classroom.
“I’ve always wanted to get into coaching,” said Shirley. “The LPGA [Tour] is not in a great state right now. I’ve got the best of two worlds. I get to be around golf and I get to play golf. And I still get a paycheck every two weeks.
“I tell Kelley I have the best job in the world. I’m just very, very fortunate.”
Someday, Shirley would like to make the jump from assistant coach to running her own program. One of Evans’ former players and assistants, Courtney Swaim Trimble, made that move last summer, landing the head coaching job at the University of Central Florida after Emilee Klein accepted the San Diego State job.
But at 24 and not long out of college, Shirley remains in the learning stage.
“I just never realized how much went into coaching,” said Shirley. “Even my players are like, ‘What do you guys do all day?’ Kelley is teaching me everything. I’ve got the best boss.”
And it certainly doesn’t hurt to play well. While she isn’t focused on recruiting at the Women’s Amateur, advancing in match play does nothing but sell the program, especially with so many high school golfers in the field.
But Shirley isn’t doing the hard-sell during competition.
“I won’t get into all that,” she said. “I have to be focused on my own game.”
Even if she does get a few double takes.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.