MUNCIE — A set of golf clubs gathered dust in the garage of Olivia Phillips’ house.
Purchased for her by her grandfather when she was in fifth grade, she infrequently took them from the bag and played rounds with her dad, and when she did, it was never serious.
That has changed. She’s now a junior and one of the leaders on Central’s girls golf team.
She shot a 44 in a match against Union and Monroe Central on Monday, earning medalist honors in her strongest round of the season. She leads a Central team into sectional play Saturday at Crestview Golf Club, and is looking to advance to the regional.
Not bad for a girl who had barely picked up a golf club before the beginning of her sophomore year.
“It’s a very mental game,” Phillips said. “If you have a bad hole, you have to be able to just shake it off. If you get down on yourself then you’re done for.
“I’m a pretty positive person, so shaking it off is pretty easy for me.”
Phillips played volleyball as a freshman, but dropped it when her friend and teammate, Sarah Tinder, suggested she take up golf. Wanting a new challenge, Phillips accepted.
The first two rounds she played, Phillips struggled to the point she was crying.
She shook it off and kept playing, saying she didn’t want to leave the group of girls that was quickly becoming her close friends.
After a rough start, Phillips was named to the ninth position out of nine on the roster. Central coach Larry Alexander had her play with the No. 2 and No. 3s on the team, but the experience was humbling. Phillips said she felt as if she was slowing everyone down as she was consistently the last to finish in those groups.
In just a few short months, Phillips improved her score by 20 strokes and was playing No. 4 at the regional, even shooting a personal-best 40 in practice. The rapid improvement didn’t surprise Alexander, but he was never sure what to expect in the first place.
“This girl was shooting in the 60s (for nine holes) when she started and by the end of the year, she’s breaking 100 (for 18 holes) in sectionals,” Alexander said. “Who does that?”
Apparently, Phillips does. The multi-sport athlete also competes in softball, swimming and is a cheerleader, but she says golf is where her heart is. She’s a three-year class president and is a part of the Best Buddies program, trying to balance her schoolwork with an active social life, all while leading the golf team.
“I would never want to quit anything that I do,” Phillips said. “Having everything on my schedule, that’s how I keep myself organized. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
With just one senior on the team, Phillips says she’s taken on a leadership role. She mentors freshmen when they have tough rounds, remembering how she felt back when she started. Alexander said he watched her become a bridge between Central and former Southside players after Southside closed.
Coming from Southside himself, Alexander noticed at the first golf meeting that Central and Southside players were sitting on opposite sides of the room. Once summer practice started, Phillips helped unite the two groups.
Alexander said the bubbly junior with an oversized purple bow in her hair just gives off a positive vibe.
“Having her here is just huge,” Alexander said. “She’s been a great leader for us this year and is just one of those success stories.”
When she first took up the sport, her dad taught her the basics, but soon bought her lessons because he didn’t want to teach her poor technique. She quickly improved, figuring out which clubs were her favorite (7-iron), and even picking up her own superstitions.
She still wears her first golf glove she ever owned, on her left hand, part of the index finger torn off. Alexander always gives her a sleeve of golf balls that have the number two on them, because she likes using even numbers, using No. 4 as a sophomore and No. 2 as a junior. The practice golf balls Central uses were supposed to be white with purple writing on them, but because of an error, the balls came out pink. Phillips just grinned, saying they’re even better now.
Aside from her positivity, Phillips says the strongest part of her game is her putting.
With the sectional on Saturday, Phillips said she’s aiming ideally to shoot in the 80s or low 90s and knock off rival Yorktown, along with advancing to the regional in Lapel.
“I feel good about going into sectionals, I know the course, I know where the danger is and where not to go,” Phillips said. “But it’s also sad because this is my junior year, and next year is my last year and I’ll have to leave my teammates.”
She’ll shake it off, and take aim for the regional.
Saturday’s ECI Girls Golf Sectionals
• Anderson (at Grandview Golf Course), 1 p.m.: Daleville
•Central (at Crestview Golf Course), 9:30 a.m.: Blue River, Central, Delta, Jay County, Monroe Central, Union, Wapahani, Wes-Del, Winchester, Yorktown
•Richmond (at Richmond Elks Country Club), 11 a.m.: New Castle
• Huntington North (at Norwood Golf Club), 8 a.m.: Blackford