‘Hey, champ’: Freshman golfer looks back on the trip from starting a high school girls’ golf team to winning a college tournament
Freshman Caraline Oakley opened the spring season for the Washington University golf team last weekend in dominant fashion. In her first ever collegiate golf competition, Oakley won the Dechert Classic in Decatur, Ill., finishing seven under par to surpass a field of 63 golfers. Student Life talked with Oakley about her journey to Wash. U. and her young career with the Bears.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: What was your first sports memory? Did you start with golf? Or was it something else that introduced you to athletics?
Caraline Oakley: My first sports memory would definitely have to be going to junior golf camp when I was little. My dad plays golf, and so does my mom—he introduced her to it. So I was definitely always surrounded by golf when I was little. My older brother is really good as well, so he also plays. I would go to the range with my dad, but I didn’t really love [it] at the time, but I did enjoy playing when I was maybe five or six. Then they enrolled me in a junior golf camp, which was just this fun little camp in the town next to me. My brother would go, and I remember we used to win prizes in these little competitions. And I just loved that feeling of winning.
SL: Are you and your brother competitive? Do you play together at all?
CO: Oh, yeah, we’re really competitive. He’s three years older than me. But he is a really good golfer, so growing up, we would always compete. He’s always been better than me, to be honest. But we’re getting at the point now where I’m almost at the point where I’m beating him. So it feels really good.
SL: So with golf, was Wash. U. always on your radar, in terms of playing? Is that something that you knew you wanted to do going into high school?
CO: Going into high school, I wasn’t completely positive I wanted to play golf in college. I knew I did want to play a sport. I really love volleyball as well. And throughout high school, I actually played a sport every season. So I played tennis, softball, golf, basketball, volleyball—I switched it up [for] a few years. But I think around my freshman or sophomore year, I decided that I wanted to stick with golf and commit to it. I still played my other sports outside of golf, but golf was my main focus. So I started reaching out to coaches around that time. And one girl from New York—she’s on my team now—she actually committed to Wash. U. my sophomore year. I actually didn’t know about the women’s golf program before that. And then when she committed I reached out to the coach and just went from there. I knew right when I visited campus that I wanted to go here, and I just fell in love with the coaches and everything.
SL: So run me through your training and your practices so far. Have they been harder or easier than you were expecting? Because I know it’s probably a lot just a lot more of a team environment. I don’t know how big your high school team was.
CO: So it’s definitely been really nice being on like a team. A little backstory—when I was in seventh, eighth and ninth grade, my school didn’t even have a girls’ golf team. I played on the boys varsity team with my brother. So then my sophomore year when we created a girls’ golf team, that was a lot of fun. It’s just been really nice to be on a girls’ team. Like I just always enjoy it—girl power. I mean, I’m very used to having long practices, just no matter what the sport is. And I actually believe that practicing helps me stay organized because it helps me with time management. So throughout all my life I’ve just been used to the long practice schedule and having to take advantage of every moment that I have throughout my day. It definitely hasn’t been that bad. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed it and I love my team. We have such good times and we have great bonding experiences.
SL: Definitely. And are you living with teammates too?
CO: No, I’m not. There’s three other freshmen on the [South 40], so I spend a lot of time with them. But with COVID, it’s definitely been interesting. It’s been a little hard to practice because we can only have like two to three girls at each practice. So we don’t even get the chance to practice as a whole team some days—there’s been a lot of restrictions. And then I was in quarantine the two weeks right before my tournament, so that was very stressful.
SL: Oh my god. So were you contact-traced or did you test positive?
CO: My suitemate tested positive. And then I got out the Wednesday evening before my tournament that was on Saturday and Sunday.
SL: So you got virtually no practice on the green the two weeks beforehand. So how did you mentally go into the tournament, knowing that you’d been cooped up for two weeks?
CO: Well, I brought my putter and a putting mat with me into quarantine, along with some golf balls. I was putting in there, so I was kind of mentally preparing to play. I played it in my head and wrote down on paper the steps that I was going to take while I was out there, like what clubs I was going to use and everything. Then I got out on Wednesday, and on Thursday, a girl on our team actually tested positive so my practice got canceled. On Friday, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to go, but it ended up that I was the only one on my team able to go. Me and my assistant coach went out, and we played nine holes. I hit a little bit and tried to just get back into the swing of things. And I just went into it trying my best. I met with my coach beforehand, and I set a goal to just go out there and have fun. I wanted to have a two-day total of under 160. And my coaches just really expressed to go out there and try my best. There was no pressure around me because I was just cooped up. And then obviously, I ended up reaching my goal of 160—I shot a 151 two-day total. It actually just felt so good to be out of quarantine. So I think I just really enjoyed the experience of being outside.
SL: Were you more nervous and normal though, stepping out there at first?
CO: Honestly, I was just so happy to be out of quarantine and just be given the opportunity to play in the first place. I was just so thankful to be out there that I had a great time. I always have pre-tournament nerves. I was listening to pump-up music before I got out of the car, and I was just so happy to be out there. Even if I didn’t play great, I knew that I would enjoy it.
SL: What’s your number one pump-up song before you go out there?
CO: I’m not very superstitious about it. It’s kind of whatever I’m feeling. This isn’t really like a pump-up song, but I like listening to “Kings and Queens” by Mat Kearney. Okay, this is a little superstitious, but I played it before I played really well two years ago in a tournament. So now this has kind of been my thing. And I really like listening to EDM music. I get EDM music to get me going.
SL: Yeah, EDM music hits the spot. You can’t always listen to absolute bangers right before you go out. So who was the first person you called after the tournament finished?
CO: It was so fun, because I looked at my phone right after my tournament. I saw my team in our group chat were texting—I had 200 texts from them. So I saw that they were there to support me every step of the way. I also got multiple texts from people, like family members, community members, my friends at Wash. U., just everyone. But the first person that I called was my dad. And I FaceTimed him and he was like, “What happened?” Because the last two holes were not updated on the live scores. I was like, “I won.” And it was such a great feeling. And he was so happy for me. And then my mom came on the phone and we were ecstatic. And then I called my coach, because my head coach was not able to go with us because she was contact-traced. So then I followed up by calling her—that was a great feeling. She gets on the phone and she goes, “Hey, champ.”
SL: That’s awesome. And there were something like 63 competitors there, right?
CO: I think there was actually more than that. I think there might have been close to 100. I honestly never looked at the roster, because I didn’t want to focus too much on my score. I want to focus more on the experience.
SL: So out of all those competitors, what’s been something that you feel like has given an edge? I think I might have seen you in the pool, so do you do a lot of cross training
CO: I would say that my main advantage is honestly my mindset. I just go out there and I try to have a good time and not think so much about my score. Another thing is I think that I’m also pretty used to the nerves of everything, because I have played so many sports throughout my career. I know how to handle myself and put myself together.
SL: So what’s next? I know Wash. U.’s hosting a tournament next weekend. So is everyone playing in that barring any COVID-related developments?
CO: I mean, we’re hoping so. This past tournament, we obviously weren’t able to compete as a team, so I competed as an individual. Honestly, you never really know what’s going to happen with COVID. But I called my coach yesterday, and we set more goals going forward. My goal is to finish top five in at least 50% of my tournaments and to average shooting 76 or better throughout the season. The future is definitely unpredictable with COVID, but we have a game plan going forward, and we’re gonna do everything in our ability to stick to it.
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