Let the record show that Michelle Cox, a Penn State sophomore, struck the opening tee shot in the inaugural round of the National Golf Invitational on May 12. That’s particularly notable considering that Cox had barely been in the field 12 hours.
All spring, Penn State has traveled with a squad of six players. Cox was often the sixth, but she made all seven starts with the team in the second half of the season – most notably in the Big 10 Championship, a play-six-count-four format. So when Penn State’s leading scorer Mathilde Delavallade was out of the five-woman NGI lineup at the last minute, Cox suited up at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona.
Delavallade and Penn State head coach Denise St. Pierre had made the trip to Arizona straight from Athens, Georgia, where Delavallade had competed as an individual in an NCAA regional. Meanwhile, they waited for an NCAA waiver that would allow Delavallade to tee it up with her team in another postseason event, the inaugural NGI.
St. Pierre had told Cox to be ready, in case that waiver didn’t come through. Cox found out shortly after the team practice round that it hadn’t.
“When I found out that Mat is not playing and I’m up,” she said, “it was go-time.”
So Cox went from off the tee sheet to first one at-bat on Friday morning, thus hitting the historic first shot. She didn’t think about the significance until later.
“I mean it’s pretty cool. I hit a decent drive too,” she said, noting that it wasn’t in the fairway but still “totally fine.”
From there, Cox went on a heater, making her first of four birdies at the par-4 second. She was in between clubs at the par-3 sixth but made a confident swing and picked up another birdie. She went for the green in two at the par-5 seventh and chipped in there for eagle.
“Those two holes were just a huge momentum swing going forward and I got really comfortable on the course after that,” she said, noting that she was much more relaxed on the first tee at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes than she normally might be at tournaments.
Pretty cool “Player / Coach” Hospitality at the National Golf Invitational, presented by @golfweek at @AkChin_SoDunes Ice cream, ping pong, corn hole, VIP couches, music and more pic.twitter.com/WYWNsvhTvo
— Kris Strauss (@krisstrauss) May 12, 2023
Cox had two more birdies on the back and closed with a bogey for an opening 5-under 67. She leads Mikayla Dubnik of Mercer and Elizabeth Lohbauer of Western Carolina by one shot in the individual race. Penn State, with an even-par team total, is one ahead of Iowa after 18 holes.
“All of the preparation all spring I was thankful for today because I was ready to go,” said Cox, whose best finish was a T-27 at the Lady Buckeye Invitational in April.
Friday’s performance was hardly surprising to St. Pierre, who was well aware of Cox’s capabilities.
“It was not like putting someone in who had not played at all,” she noted. “She’s a competitor, she’s very gritty, she loves to be out there and be part of the team and competing. I’m not surprised at all what happened today.”
Cox’s round went a long way in Penn State’s rise up the leaderboard. Ak-Chin Southern Dunes requires a focus on targets – off the tee as well as into greens – which was a major talking point during the team’s practice round.
“I think we made a good execution of the game plan that we talked about yesterday,” St. Pierre said.
As for Delavallade, who finished T-43 individually in Athens to miss advancing to the NCAA Championship, this week offers a little different perspective, too.
“She’s been a great support for her teammates,” said St. Pierre.