Building a brand new women’s golf program from scratch at Clemson, coach J.T. Horton didn’t have to look too far to form his nucleus.
Four of the six players on the inaugural Tigers team all competed together in the Augusta area, and now Ashlan and Taylor Ramsey, McKenzie Talbert and Jessica Hoang are turning their new team into an instant collegiate contender.
“It’s awesome,” said Talbert, a diehard Clemson loyalist from Edgefield County who was the first player to commit to Horton. “He built an awesome team and it happened to work out to where I had previous relationships with all the girls. We may be freshmen, but we’re not just getting to know each other. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Said Ashlan Ramsey: “It feels nice to play with who you’ve grown up playing with.”
The Ramsey sisters grew up in Martinez and attended Greenbrier before the family moved to Milledgeville, Ga., a few years ago.
Ashlan developed into the No. 1 female junior in the world before heading off to Clemson this fall. Taylor (a year older) won the 2010 AJGA event at West Lake Country Club, defeating her sister by a stroke.
Talbert went to Strom Thurmond and was a three-time South Carolina Junior Golf Association and Carolinas player of the year and former Junior Solheim Cup team member.
Hoang played on the boys team at North Augusta and has been dominant on the local junior scene with victories in the 2011 American Junior Golf Association event at Jones Creek and back-to-back Southeastern Junior Golf Tour classics at Forest Hills in 2009-10.
Along with teammates Sloan Shanahan, of Suwanee, Ga.; and Lauren Salazar; of Santa Clara, Calif., they’ve made an immediate impact in the college ranks. In the team’s first event last weekend in the Cougar Classic at Yeamans Hall near Charleston, S.C., Clemson finished second, a shot behind Florida (and 12 ahead of established in-state rival South Carolina). Ashlan Ramsey lipped out a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole and Shanahan missed a 6-footer as both finished a shot out of medalist honors as well.
“From the team aspect all of us were disappointed with the outcome but I don’t think it was any of our faults,” Ashlan Ramsey said. “We all had our share of chances throughout the week to save strokes. All we can do is learn from it to better our games.”
The runner-up performance – in a field that included eight Southeastern Conference teams and three other Atlantic Coast Conference programs – sent a message that despite their youth and limited roster, the Tigers can compete with anyone.
“We expected what happened to happen, but I think we shocked a lot of other people to be honest,” Talbert said of the strong debut. “I don’t think anyone realized the talent depth we have.”
Just because most of the young women played together as juniors in local and national events isn’t what brought them together at Clemson. Once the school announced it was starting a women’s team to go along with its respected men’s program, Talbert was a lock.
“I’ve always been a Clemson fan. Grew up that way,” she said. “Never been anything different. We had season tickets to football. It was always somewhere I wanted to be and fortunately the golf came just in time.”
Hoang initially wanted to go to Georgia and was considering Auburn and Ole Miss before the Tigers’ opportunity intervened.
“Sophomore year is when Clemson announced they were having a women’s golf team. I thought it was pretty neat to consider,” she said. “I just fell in love with Clemson.”
The Ramseys were a major recruiting bonus. Taylor enrolled last year and Ashlan – who finished 48th in her first LPGA major at the Kraft Nabisco last spring – followed suit after a victory-filled junior season.
“I really liked coach Horton and the things he would be able to do for me as far as improving my game and all,” Ashlan said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like it was home. Clemson has a real family environment. Very welcoming. I really didn’t get that feeling anywhere else.”
Horton had an easy product to sell. Clemson already had one of the top men’s programs in the nation and the highly-rated Walker Course already on campus. Being part of something new was an attraction and not a deterrent as the chance to play immediately was almost guaranteed.
“We had the opportunity to establish a national elite program right away,” Horton said. “One of the things I sold was the ability to set the standard of excellence and records that we want to achieve as a team and let everybody chase those records instead of going somewhere else and chasing records set long before them.”
With a roster of only six freshmen (two of them redshirts) to choose five participants from, Horton stresses that everyone needs to stay healthy and academically eligible and be ready to play any given week.
“We will continue to add players and depth through the upcoming years,” he said. “Nobody graduates until 2017, so we have to make sure we continue to have players and depth as we move forward.”
The Augusta-area well was a golf-enriched spring from which to start.
“The great thing about all four of them is they bring just a ton of tournament experience,” Horton said. “All four are great competitors and winners. The neat thing about them is they each have leadership characteristics. When you’re trying to develop a young team with everybody the same age, that means that sometime throughout this process they’ll be used to bring their leadership abilities and personalty to the table to help develop our team.”
Horton said the team hasn’t set any specific expectations, but the long-range goal is the same as every program.
“I can assure you that making it through (NCAA) regionals into the national championship is one of our goals,” he said. “That would be a high order for a team full of five freshmen to conquer.”
The players aren’t daunted by the quest and their immediate success only fuels their confidence.
“I’m so excited that we were able to pull off what we expected to,” Talbert said of the first tournament. “The hardest thing is winning when everyone expects you to win and we came damn close to doing that. So that’s pretty exciting. We’ll learn from what happened, move forward with it so the next time we’re in that situation it’s going to be old news.”
Said Hoang: “I believe that we’re a strong team with strong players from the same area, and I believe that we can make a name for ourselves this season.”