As Grace Suter reflects now, COVID-19 played an emotional game of give-and-take as the Oconomowoc native pursued options to play college golf.
Initially, the pause in golf altogether back home in Wisconsin in March and in competitive golf until early June was a "huge helper" to Suter. It gave her time to expand her recruiting horizons after opting to graduate high school early and spend the spring semester at Mike Bender Academy in Florida.
"It allowed me to get better and improve without having the pressure of any tournaments on my mind," Suter wrote in an email interview with Wisconsin.Golf. "It led to four uninterrupted months of practice on skills. However, after the four months was over it started to bite me in the butt."
Indeed, once the NCAA canceled the spring golf season and awarded current college golfers an additional year of eligibility for what was lost during 2019-20 and, ultimately, another for what has been lost and still uncertain in 2020-21, the number of golfers on college rosters essentially stood still. That took away many of the opportunities Suter might have found had college golf enjoyed its typical circle of life with incoming freshmen eager to replace departed seniors.
COVID-19 restrictions also prevented college coaches from watching her and seeing for themselves the immense improvement the 5-foot-3 Suter enjoyed last summer when she finished fourth at the Wisconsin Women's State Open, and second at both The Sherri Steinhauer and The Dells Junior Championship. By deferring her college decision to 2021, Suter moved into a share of the No. 1 ranking in the Wisconsin.Golf Class of 2021 girls state rankings.
"I guess I didn't realize that, even if you were shooting good scores, coaches didn't (believe) it unless they saw it, which in hindsight makes sense," Suter wrote. "So I set out on the seemingly endless process of emailing every coach that had a (Division) I program, hoping that COVID left them with a spot I could fill."
Ultimately, she estimates she sent out "at least 75 emails" to coaches at some of the nearly 250 NCAA Division I programs. In December, Suter told Wisconsin.Golf that she had opportunities — not necessarily scholarship offers, but the promise of a roster spot and the chance to compete for playing time — from several Division I schools and, late last month, Suter chose the one at Loyola (Ill.) in Chicago over Butler University in Indianapolis, California Baptist University in Riverside and Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
"Loyola just seemed to make the most sense," Suter wrote. "I knew some of the girls on the team. I really liked Coach (Carly) Werwie and it was conveniently located in Chicago, not too far from home."
Indeed, Suter will become the third Wisconsin golfer to play for Werwie, a former University of Wisconsin golfer who is in her third season as Ramblers coach after playing competitively on the Symetra Tour and then serving as a volunteer assistant at Carthage College in Kenosha. Suter will join Menomonee Falls' Lorenza Martinez and Middleton's Kate Meier.
Martinez led Loyola at the Missouri Valley Conference Championship in 2019 when the Ramblers shot a pair of 304s and were tied for fourth in the 10-team event after two rounds only to close with a 327 and drop into eighth place. Three of the golfers from that team are still on the roster and, after COVID-19 canceled the spring season and denied Loyola a chance to measure growth in 2020, it will look to get that chance this spring before Suter arrives in the fall with Jolie Brochu of Goodrich, Mich., and Cate Reisinger of Park Ridge, Ill.
"I wasn't allowed to take a visit due to COVID and flying restrictions," Suter wrote. "However, I did have quite a few calls with Coach Werwie and, right from the get-go, I loved her energy over the phone and knew that she was going to be a great coach. She reminded me a lot of my high school coach, Coach (Jason) Dahl, with her energy and positive outlook."
After a recruiting process that grew more frustrating the longer it went, Suter said that outlook — and opportunity attached to it — was much-appreciated.
"Throughout my months of emailing ... it was just rejection after rejection," Suter wrote, "with the common line of 'Sorry, you'd make a great addition to our team, but unfortunately our roster is too full and the administration is cutting our budgets ... I hope you find a good fit.' At first, I took it personally and wanted to just stop asking, but my dad pushed me and asked me 'Are you really going to give up now after all you've accomplished?'
"Finally, I started to make some headway and started to get some responses for walk-on spots and maybe some scholarship. So, after about four months of emailing and talking to coaches, I had a few opportunities that fit what I was looking for."
Loyola not only offered Suter an opportunity to pursue her dreams athletically, but its Quinlan School of Business ranks No. 81 in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report and checked a key box for the future accounting major. Her goal is to get her MBA and land a job with one of accounting's Big Four firms, she wrote.
In the meantime, Suter can't wait to get down to business and see how the improvements she has made at the Mike Bender Academy translate at the college level.
"I see myself fitting in well," Suter wrote. "I've gotten to text with some of my future teammates and they seem like great ladies! On the scoring side, I feel I will fit right in. My scoring average right now is 74 to 75 and I know it will get lower, leading me to be a good contributor to the team. ... As far as (the program's) expectations, the best way I can describe what I think they are is to just go out and put 100 percent effort into everything I do — from practice to schoolwork to the golf course."