Trailing by four strokes with four holes to play, the prospects of winning a second straight state title seemed bleak for Okemos’ Elle Nichols.
Rather than accept defeat, the junior golfer made her charge.
“I felt like this was my tournament,” Nichols said.
Nichols made up those four strokes and eventually forced a playoff between herself, Kristyn Crippen of East Lansing and Hailey Hrynewich of Muskegon Mona Shores.
She then regained the Division 2 girls’ individual state championship after she dropped a bogey putt on the first hole of the playoff on Saturday.
“My whole team rushed the putting green,” Nichols said. “I got a little teary and started crying a little bit.”
Four strokes back
Before the day started, Nichols had dug herself a hole. She shot an 82 in the first round and was four strokes behind Danielle Little of Battle Creek Lakeview on The Meadows Golf Course at Grand Valley State.
“It was a difficult course compared to most that I’ve played,” she said. “I wasn’t playing bad. I just couldn’t get putts to fall.”
Nichols’ coach, Dan Stolz, noticed a difference in her demeanor, too, and had some advice for her before she started her final round.
“I feel you’re trying to defend the championship and you’re trying not to lose,” he told Nichols. “Today you become the hunter instead of the hunted.”
Nichols picked up golf from her father, David, who played at Central Michigan. At 8 years old, she began playing golf with him and learned how to handle herself on the course.
“He’s the one that got me to where I am now,” Nichols said. “He taught me how to play.”
She drew on some of those lessons to begin her comeback. An aggressive player, as described by her coach, Nichols immediately made up ground on Saturday by shooting 2-under-par on her first four holes.
Nichols was in the same group as Little and Hrynewich, but as the day progressed, Little lost her lead and was replaced by Hrynewich at the top of the field.
As Nichols hit the final four holes and still trailed by four strokes, she knew it was time to make a final push.
“I thought this was my chance to come back, and I really wanted to win this,” Nichols said.
Going to a playoff
At the final hole, Nichols was two strokes back, but while she made par on the 18th, while Hrynewich ended with a double bogey.
In what was a rainy weekend, the two girls, along with Crippen, finished with a two-day total of 158 and headed back to the 18th hole for a playoff.
Despite Nichols’ slow start it was no shock to her opponents that she was part of the playoff.
“She’s just such a great all-around player, and she has a great game,” Crippen said.
Nichols’ success along with that of fellow Division 2 playoff participant Crippen, Holt’s Pader Her (who placed third in the Division 1 state finals) and Jacqueline Setas (who lost in a Division 4 playoff to possible Miss Golf Aya Johnson of Manistee Catholic) and the Lansing Catholic team (which won a third straight Division 4 state title) made it a strong year for girls golf in the Lansing area.
The finale in Division 2 gave the season an appropriate ending.
The playoff hole drew a large crowd around the green.
Nichols put her first shot into the hazard but recovered quickly. Her fourth shot left her with a tap-in for bogey. After Crippen and Hrynewich missed their bogey putts, Nichols sank the final shot to win the tournament.
As the ball fell in the hole, her Okemos teammates stormed the green and celebrated with her. Competing as an individual last year, it was a different feeling having her team, which finished in third, with her.
“Last year she didn’t have her teammates there,” Stolz said “This year she felt a responsibility to her teammates and herself.”
While her focus on the course suggested that Nichols never doubted she would lose, she was as shocked as anyone.
“I couldn’t even believe how the day ended up,” Nichols said.