Class on the Grass

Golfer Emily Balmert keeps carding milestones.

At the Fresh Pond Golf Course in  Cambridge, Emily Balmert ’09 of the women’s golf team—the first Harvard woman to win the Ivy championship—swings into spring.

[extra:Video Extra]

Watch a video analysis of Emily Balmert's golf swing.

The eighth hole at the Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy, Massachusetts, is an uphill dogleg right, a short par 5 at 401 yards. On May 8, 2006, Emily Balmert ’09 was playing it in the Warren Smith Memorial Tournament, a fundraising event named for the late coach who started the Harvard women’s golf program in 1993. Balmert struck a good drive to the crest of a hill on the left side of the fairway. Blocked from sight of the hole, she hit a four-iron for her second shot. Director of golf Fred Schernecker ’89, playing in Balmert’s foursome, was standing on the right side of the fairway about 80 yards from the green when he saw her ball hole out for a double-eagle 2, three under par. He gave a shout, but Balmert didn’t let herself believe what had happened until she reached the green and saw her ball “happily resting in the hole.”

Later that day, Balmert shared the exciting incident with her roommate Adriana Benedict ’09, who has scant knowledge of golf, explaining that double eagles are the rarest of golf scores, far scarcer even than holes in one, which are a possibility on any par 3. As luck would have it, Balmert carded her first hole in one the following season. Once again, she recounted the event to Benedict, who replied, “Didn’t you get something better than that last year?”

Well, actually, she did, and not just the double eagle. As a freshman, Balmert won the Ivy League individual golf championship, becoming the first Harvard woman to do so. Since then, she has been part of a changing of the guard in Ivy women’s golf, which began crowning champions in 1996. (All Ivy colleges except Cornell compete in the sport.) Yale and Princeton monopolized the league titles during the first 10 seasons. But in 2007, Columbia wrested the crown from their clutches, and last year, in the season-ending tournament at the Atlantic City Country Club, Harvard gained its first Ivy title by a robust 10 strokes and placed three golfers (Balmert, Jessica Hazlett ’08, and Claire Sheldon ’10) among the seven chosen for the all-Ivy team.

In fact, Balmert, a self-admitted “perfectionist,” has made the all-league team every year to date. As a sophomore, she set a Harvard single-season record for stroke average (77.19 per 18 holes). Though she stands only five feet, four inches tall, Balmert can hit the ball 240 yards with her driver, which she invariably uses off the tee. (“I can’t afford not to!” she says, smiling.) And her chips, pitches, bunker shots, and putts are accurate enough to have earned her the Crimson’s annual Short Game Award, for the player who used the fewest strokes inside 50 yards, in two of her three seasons.

“Emily’s biggest strength may be her mental game,” says women’s golf coach Kevin Rhoads. “She can almost will things to happen. On the course, she has an extremely intense focus and doesn’t get distracted. An example was when she won the Ivies as a freshman. They played in a heavy, cold downpour for two days.” Walking over a freezing, flooded course bruised Balmert’s feet and made them swell; nonetheless, her 76-39 for 115 won the title in a tournament shortened by rain to 27 holes. (Her personal best is a 68, carded at last year’s Ivy tourney.)

Balmert grew up and lives in the San Diego area, the only child of Mark and Chae Balmert, both of whom have played golf. In fact, her father, a retired navy admiral, remains an active player with a single-digit handicap who can keep up with his varsity daughter. Balmert was swinging toy plastic clubs as soon as she could walk, and played her first tournament at the age of six. She liked the idea of playing against the course, and being responsible for her own scoring. “Golf isn’t a direct competition—they’re not going to kick the ball away from you,” she explains. “You just happen to compare scores.”

Intercollegiate golf compares scores in tournament play—there are no one-on-one meets—with as many as 19 teams entered. Each college enters five golfers, and sums up the four lowest scores for a team total. Last year, the Crimson won six of the nine tournaments it entered, and in the fall started even stronger, winning all four events, at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and Lehigh. The Ivy tourney this spring returns to the Atlantic City Country Club in New Jersey on the last weekend in April, with the Crimson aiming to repeat as champions. Balmert’s mental toughness and steadiness will help the cause, but even a player with her enviable consistency has to admit that one of her favorite quotes on the game is “Golf is a four-letter word.

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert
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