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Friday, April 19, 2024

Striking the jackpot

Austin Graham doesn’t remember life before golf. Chelsea Stelzmiller can’t imagine life without it.

The two freshmen share a rare love for the game, and this season they shared it for the first time with UC Davis.

Graham and Stelzmiller paced the Aggie men’s and women’s golf teams this season, helping to lead them to second-place finishes last week at the Big West Conference Championships. Graham earned second-team All-Big West honors while Stelzmiller captured Big West Player of the Year, freshman of the year and first-team all-conference recognition.

“She’s had an incredible year,” said women’s head coach Kathy DeYoung of Stelzmiller. “She’s come in and performed phenomenally through the whole season.”

“Austin is a very nice, humble, super-talented kid,” said men’s head coach Cy Williams. “He’s also an incredibly hard worker. He’s really committed to getting better. As a coach, I don’t know what more you’d want out of a player.”

While they made it look easy, becoming a Division I team’s top golfer as a freshman is not something that happens overnight.

For Graham, the journey began when he was a small child.

“Ever since I could walk, my dad would take me to the range and we would hit balls, and I would always follow him around on the course,” Graham said. “Then when I got old enough I would go out by myself and practice. I used to play soccer and basketball, but when I was done practicing I always wanted to go back to the golf course. It’s been my passion forever.”

By the time he stepped foot onto the San Clemente High School campus as a freshman in 2003, Graham had translated his passion into production.

“From his first day of tryouts he had the lowest scoring average on the team, and it remained that way until the day he graduated,” said San Clemente head coach Mike Hurlbut. “I’ve been coaching for about 20 years, and he’s probably the first kid I’ve had as a captain his sophomore year. He’s just amazing – he took the No. 1 spot and he never let it go. I’ll never forget that – I’ll never see that again.”

After graduating, Graham didn’t hesitate to claim the No. 1 spot again, this time leading the Aggies with a 72.7 stroke average.

“It was the best year in the history of UC Davis [men’s] golf for a freshman,” Williams said. “He’s going to be the first freshman to ever win team MVP, too, so that’s pretty good.

“But what really excites me about Austin is his passion for getting better. After the very first tournament we had, he e-mailed me that night and said, ‘Coach, can we meet next morning and go over my tournament?’ That was maybe the first time ever I’ve had a player do that.”

With that, the tradition had been set. After every tournament, Williams and Graham meet at Mocha Joe’s coffee shop in Davis on Mace Boulevard to discuss the previous weekend’s competition.

Unlike Graham, Stelzmiller is not a regular Mocha Joe’s customer, but she is just as devoted to golf.

Her head coach at Union Mine High School in Placerville, Calif. learned this on the first day of her freshman year when Stelzmiller was nowhere to be seen.

“Chelsea missed her first day of high school because she was playing in a golf tournament,” said coach Chad McGowan. “We typically don’t have a lot of players that come in with experience, so that was a good sign for me that we were getting somebody who was a player.”

After his first time seeing her in action, McGowan would realize the caliber of the player he was getting.

“She has a real Fred Couples, Ernie Els swing where it’s real effortless,” he said. “It’s real strong and slow and just generates a lot of power using her height (6 feet) to get a lot of torque. She just swings so easy and hits it super far. That’s something her dad taught her.”

Her father began giving her lessons at Cold Springs Golf & Country Club in Placerville when she was 12 years old.

“I didn’t even play that much when I first started,” Stelzmiller said. “He wanted me to learn all the etiquette and all the rules before I got out there. I think that was really helpful for learning. I could just go out there and watch him play, and it was our country club so I could hang out in the restaurant and there were a lot of kids there – it was fun.”

By age 15, Stelzmiller had caught on, and she and her father would team up to play pairs against other club members.

“We would hustle them,” Stelzmiller joked. “My dad would go up to a couple guys and be like, ‘Hey, you want to have a little game?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, sure. You and a little girl against us?’ And then we’d play with them and kick their butts. It wasn’t for money or anything – just for fun.”

Now Stelzmiller has moved on from demoralizing club members to defeating Big West opponents. On Apr. 22, she tied as the top individual finisher at the league championships, closing her season with a 74.0 stroke average – the best mark in the program’s three-year history.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” DeYoung said. “We were very fortunate to get Chelsea here, and I think it is a great fit for both UC Davis golf and Chelsea. I knew she had incredible potential.… She got a late start compared to a lot of other players, so she still has the ability to get better, and she still does. And that’s what is going to be most exciting about her in the future.”

The odds of someone striking the jackpot are rare. With Stelzmiller and Graham – two freshmen with pro potential – UC Davis has done it twice.

Maybe it’s because he’s left-handed. Maybe it’s because country clubs don’t let him play because he has a hobo beard. Whatever the reason, MICHAEL GEHLKEN is a terrible golfer. To give him some tips, he can be reached at sports@californiaaggie.com.

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