How two students saved the golf team at Meredith College

ON A SCALDING SEPTEMBER DAY, Maycee Kay Aycock and Sarah Marshall line up around a practice green nestled into a corner of the Meredith College campus. Students at the private women’s college in Raleigh, North Carolina, scurry past the two golfers on the way to class, hoping to avoid being doinked by errant pitching wedges.

Thankfully, nobody gets injured today, even as Aycock and Marshall splatter shots everywhere and jokingly call themselves “the worst golfers in America.”

In February 2023, Meredith coach Jimmy Hamilton was down to two healthy golfers, two less than the Division III requirement to field a team, with three events left in the season. He emailed a desperate plea to the entire student body of about 1,400 undergrads, but only Aycock and Marshall showed up. They had never met or played a round of golf before and proceeded to shoot a combined 434 on their first 18 holes.

Still, they gutted out the final three events, shooting +1,358 and finishing last and second-to-last in every event. That kept Meredith compliant with NCAA requirements, which kept the school’s conference, the USA South Athletic, at its same seedings and allotment totals. Whew. To say Aycock and Marshall saved Meredith’s golf team is a bit of an overstatement. But they certainly preserved the program, which preserved the conference.

Today is the first practice of the 2023-24 golf season, and Aycock and Marshall are waiting in 105-degree heat for Hamilton and the rest of the team to arrive. They love Hamilton, a 68-year-old golf lifer. They say the only thing on earth that gets Coach Jimmy fired up is if somebody mentions the leaf piles in some of the school’s parking lots.

Sure enough, when Hamilton moseys in 10 minutes later and is asked about the leaves, he closes his eyes in half-serious agitation. As his golfers laugh, Hamilton finally opens his eyes and says, “There are leaves in these parking lots that have been here since World War II. It’s a ‘small college short on budget’ situation.”

By that point, five more Avenging Angels have arrived and are pitching toward the green. They line up around Aycock and Marshall, who are now, literally and figuratively, at the center of Meredith golf. When Golf Digest’s Shane Ryan first told their story in May, readers were drawn to the feature of two young women who battled through rain, tears and embarrassment for the greater good of their golf team, their school and their conference. Aycock and Marshall spent the following months speaking to the media, at events, at store openings and even addressing the Kiwanis Club of Raleigh.

Aycock is a PR major who takes crap from no one, and Marshall is a laidback business administration major who wants to be an event planner someday. They became fast friends and often filled each other’s gaps; Aycock’s feistiness rubbed off on Marshall, and Marshall’s stoic resilience grounded Aycock when they felt like quitting golf.

As they chip shots at practice, the torturous fruits of their labor are on full display. The publicity sparked interest in the Avenging Angels, and the roster now has 12 golfers on it, all with new Nike equipment because of a sponsorship deal with a local golf store. Hamilton says donations to the program have skyrocketed.

Aycock and Marshall are probably the team’s 11th and 12th-best golfers on the expanded roster. Later that day, Hamilton informs them that they won’t be among the four golfers attending Meredith’s first event of the season. They’re understanding, but hope for an opportunity to play another event together before Marshall graduates in the spring.

Hamilton tells them to be patient and focus on getting better. He promises there will be opportunities for both of them to play together during the season. They leave that day a little disappointed but hopeful for at least one last hurrah. Golf has become an integral part of their friendship, and they both say it always will be.

That made it doubly shocking a few weeks later when Aycock stared down at a text from Hamilton: She’d been suspended indefinitely from the golf team.

THERE WERE SO MANY HURDLES to officially becoming a Meredith golfer. Aycock and Marshall needed to log practice time, buy clubs and complete a slew of paperwork. They managed to pull it all off about 24 hours before the team van had to make the two-hour drive to the Pfeiffer Spring Invitational on the North Carolina shoreline.

Hamilton breathed a sigh of relief as he buckled in for the drive. He’d had a series of injuries, defections and disappearances of golfers from his roster, and the email was a last-ditch effort to field a four-person team.

But how would Aycock and Marshall actually play?

Hamilton knew it was going to be a tough weekend. He hadn’t seen Aycock and Marshall swing clubs before welcoming them onto the team. At practice a day before the tournament, Hamilton spent most of his time teaching them rules and etiquette. The golf itself was … not good. There were lots of swing-and-misses, wormburners and pop flies that landed 5 yards in front of them and every other way to badly hit a golf ball.

But amid all the chunks and chili-dippers, Hamilton saw something beautiful developing: two strangers who were quickly bonding together. They were lifting each other up and they seemed to have the mental toughness to gut out what was going to be a long weekend of golf.

Aycock and Marshall sat together on the three-hour van ride. Aycock talked about her background. She was an only child and she had been chugging along as an outstanding high school student and soccer player until her mom had the first of several strokes. Aycock found herself spending large stretches of her final two years at her mom’s side, a kid trying to advocate on her mother’s behalf in the hospital and later recovering at home.

When she describes herself, she often points to that time in her life as the first moment when she felt the coldness of the world. Her dad was around but she felt like she was on an island. She felt like she was just a kid fighting all day. Fighting for her mom. Fighting with their health insurance company. Fighting with teachers about missing school. Fighting with a boyfriend who she says, in retrospect, was a toxic presence in her life. She says that’s about the time that she decided she had opinions, and she would never again keep those to herself.

Her grades took a hit, and she stepped away from soccer. She made it to high school graduation, but it was a limp to the finish line, not a sprint. Aycock decided she had to find a school close to home as her mom recovered. Meredith felt like a good fit.

Marshall loved Aycock’s fire. She mentioned right away to Aycock that she thought they had very similar life philosophies, but very different ways of expressing themselves. Aycock makes her voice heard right away, and she doesn’t care how blunt it may come off. Marshall said she grew up in a large family in Raleigh where she would often be the quietest one in the room. She learned to stand up for herself, by doing her own thing without necessarily verbalizing it. In her own way, Marshall doesn’t take crap from anyone, either.

Aycock asked her how she ended up at Meredith, and Marshall said she used to visit her dad at work and could see the school’s campus from his office. She always felt a warmth for the school.

Aycock mentioned that she was nannying for several families in her free time. She was going to class all day, then hustling kids home, watching them all evening, then running home to study. Marshall loved that, too — she was working at a teen center in Raleigh for struggling kids.

They also got a good laugh out of their reasons for joining the team: They loved the free golf outfits that Meredith gave out and they were intrigued by the challenge and mystery of trying to be college athletes. “How many kids get the opportunity to really go for it?” Aycock says. “We will always be able to say we played golf in college.”

By the time they reached the tournament, Aycock and Marshall became closer than seemed possible on a single van ride. They both knew they were going to need each other to get through the weekend. This was going to be ugly. “But at least there will be ice cream,” Marshall laughed.

In February last year, Hamilton held two informational sessions after sending the recruitment email to the study body. Nobody showed for the first session, so he waited anxiously for the second meeting … and in walked Aycock and Marshall. He pitched the program as a low-pressure, high-yield opportunity to play college golf, and at the end threw in, “And I promise, I’ll buy everybody ice cream afterward.”

They were two long days away from ice cream, though. Before the Pfeiffer began, Hamilton asked tournament organizers to let Aycock and Marshall start early and play together. He was told groups were already drawn and they’d be paired with players of similar skill levels. Hamilton pushed back gently, telling them that Aycock and Marshall were probably a tier below even the more novice players but he ultimately went with the flow.

The two women were slightly dismayed when they found out that they weren’t going to play together. Marshall was having serious doubts. She wanted Aycock by her side. Aycock can be blunt and persistent, but in a way that makes people feel grateful she is on their team. So Marshall felt a pang as she walked to the starting tee box without her. There were 74 total players in the tournament, with friends, families and coaches on the course.

Marshall took a breath and swung. Complete whiff. Laying two, as 25 people stood around nearby. For her second swing, she worried about how easy it would be to clip a crowd member. As she tried to envision driving the ball straight and not sending anybody to the hospital, she realized if she didn’t hit it at least 50 yards, she wasn’t going to clear water just out in front of the tee box. She reared back and drilled a low liner that was 50-50 to clear the water. After what felt like 2 hours, the ball barely skipped over the fringe of the pond.

On the other side of the course, Aycock teed up her first ball, with the same nerves. Her first few shots were all over the place and the pressure began to mount on her shoulders. She putts well and has a nice, compact swing, but she is prone to taking large clumps of earth with her ball. That was her issue early on. She’d often hit a drive 100 yards or so out onto the fairway, then end up taking four or five shots in a row with the same iron as she tried to get to the green.

Both of their playing partners were patient and kind on Day 1, and no fans booed or yelled at them. But the buzz about Aycock and Marshall built throughout the day. Every crowd murmur or conversation among other players felt like they were probably being goofed on. Throw in nonstop rain, and several alligator sightings on the course, and both of their heads were spinning.

Hamilton did his best to walk and talk with them as much as he could. His two veteran players, Lindsey Vickers and Jenna Cirillo, were in the middle of solid rounds (Vickers shot 108 and Cirillo had 111). Hamilton spent lots of his day ping-ponging between Aycock and Marshall, life coaching them through a slog. “Coach Jimmy is one of those good people in the world,” Aycock says.

Aycock and Marshall didn’t see each other for their entire rounds. But they both had the same two thoughts in their heads. They wanted to get to the finish line and huddle up together, then get that ice cream they were promised.

Aycock turned in her card first. She shot a 158, which was plus-86. Marshall didn’t even count her score. She handed her card to a tournament official who tallied it up, looked at her and said, in the nicest voice possible, “I didn’t even know you could score that high.”

Marshall couldn’t believe the number he read back to her: 204 over par.

RAIN WAS STILL FALLING as the entire Meredith team ate ice cream. Aycock and Marshall were a new kind of exhausted — they’d never played a full 18, let alone carried a golf bag in the rain while swinging clubs a total of 434 times.

Aycock and Marshall sat together and had a good laugh about their struggles on the course. They smiled when they saw Coach Jimmy pay for a random little kid’s ice cream as well as the team’s bill. They were hurting, physically and spiritually, but the hurt seemed worthwhile.

As Aycock ate her mint chocolate chip and Marshall had her cookie dough, they both felt the beginnings of something new in their lives. In different ways, they’d been islands unto themselves for so long. Here, giggling about the misery of people murmuring as they shot 20s in a college golf tournament, they felt like they had a friend now on the island. “Something definitely changed for me,” Marshall says. “It just felt like we were a great fit as friends all of a sudden.”

Their high scores hadn’t gone unnoticed. So, tournament organizers granted Hamilton’s previous request to let Aycock and Marshall play together. They also let them tee off a half hour earlier than everyone else to prevent delays. One of the misconceptions about how they play is that it must take a long time. But they actually hustle between shots, don’t often change clubs and spend almost no time practice swinging and backing off shots. They grip and rip.

The next morning, in the pouring rain, they hit the tee box together. It was wetter than the day before and much quieter, and for long stretches of the next four hours, Aycock and Marshall were by themselves — but together, alone — on the course.

That’s when they realized how much they liked being alone together. Aycock is a little more talkative than Marshall, so she drove the conversation. Aycock kept saying the win would be finishing the round, regardless of the chatter about how bad they’d played. That helped Marshall keep grinding. “Also … ice cream,” she said, and Marshall would laugh.

Aycock played about as well as she did the previous day but the miserable toll of rain and fatigue caused her to shoot a 173, a 15-shot dropoff. Thanks to the positivity of playing with her friend, Marshall had an incredible turnaround. She finished with a 199 — a whopping 77-shot improvement. They’d gotten to the finish line. “It was really up in the air whether we would have a team or not,” says Kennedy Brady, a sophomore on the team. “To see those two go and play even though they didn’t have as much skill or talent, it made me really happy. I was really rooting for them.”

Meredith wrapped up the day in last place. But at least they had a team. Aycock and Marshall finished with 806 total strokes, which was plus-528. If they would have played as a two-person team against the other four-person teams, they would have finished in last place by two strokes.

As they piled into the van and headed back to Raleigh, they both felt like they’d accomplished something bigger than them. Before they left town, though, they had one more destination: the ice cream shop.

“We needed them, and they came through for us,” Hamilton says. “It’s a real testament to two young women who know how to battle.”

THE REST OF THE SEASON was a blur. Both got much better. But they were still the worst golfers in the season’s final two tournaments.

At the Greenbrier College Open in April, they shot the four worst rounds of any of the 46 players. But Marshall shot 159-157, showing much more consistency and trimming 150 shots off her first tournament just a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile, Aycock shot 148-131, a remarkable improvement. Meredith finished in last place, and Coach Jimmy again bought them all ice cream.

Aycock and Marshall were acquiring an odd reputation; other golfers and fans admired them for what can only be described as happy futility. But there were plenty of grumbles.

The Golf Digest story began with a powerful scene from their final event of the season, the USA South Conference championships. They were on Day 3 of another rainy slog when they heard a golfer had called them “embarrassing.” They sat together and cried until the mom of an opposing golfer found them and said, “Don’t listen to the mean girls. You two are my heroes. You’re the only ones out there having any fun.”

That ignited Aycock. She can be relentless, which she traces mostly back to fighting for her mom back in that hospital room and pushing teachers for assignment extensions. “I’m a little gnat that keeps coming back,” she says.

At that moment, she insisted to Marshall that they needed to power through and finish the tournament. And they did: Aycock wound up second-to-last and Marshall was dead last. In a rain-shortened 45-hole tournament, Aycock shot 177-153-84 and Marshall ended with a 198-190-90. Hamilton shakes his head at how the two rookies endured what ranks among the rainier stretches of golf he’s ever been a part of. “They do not give up,” he says.

After the Golf Digest story published, they woke up to some criticism, but also an avalanche of praise. “There’s so much bad stuff happening in the world that I think people read our story and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool,'” Aycock says. “Everybody who ever starts anything is bad at first, and they can relate to that.”

But there was enough criticism that Marshall deleted all of her social media accounts. Aycock probably should have done the same thing. She loves social media, especially TikTok, and often wonders if she should try to become a full-time influencer someday. So she couldn’t help herself. She hate-read all the comments about how they were a disgrace to the sport. How they probably played disruptively slow and so on. She relayed some of it to Marshall, so they both ended up taking on some of the internet’s toxic water.

The negativity piled up to the point that most people would have probably been one-and-done with college golf. That’s not how either Aycock or Marshall works, though. They’re not people who wilt, and they eventually figured out there is absolutely no way they weren’t playing for Meredith in 2023-24.

It turns out, though, that wasn’t going to be their decision to make.

IN EARLY OCTOBER, Aycock got that text from Hamilton about her TikTok. He said an anonymous alum saw her TikTok profile and objected to some cursing from music lyrics. Hamilton asked Aycock to take down two specific videos, which she did.

Aycock doesn’t swear herself but she sings along to two songs with F-bombs in them. Rae Sremmurd’s “Swang” plays over a video of her working on her swing with Hamilton. But when rappers say the N-word, she doesn’t say it or mouth it herself.

After deleting the videos, Aycock sat down and wrote a 500-word email to Hamilton. She starts by mentioning that she is “hotter than a firecracker,” and then she essentially says “OK, Boomer” for much of the rest of it.

“I understand your opinion and respect that you have one, but if you are asking a 20-year-old woman to put herself in your shoes without explaining why you feel that way, it seems limiting,” she writes at one point.

She concludes with, “If you are going to hold me to such high standards and assume I think like a 25-50-year-old adult, please reach out to me directly and we can talk about your opinion.”

She sent the email to Hamilton and asked him to forward it to the anonymous alum. The next day, she was getting ready for class when Hamilton texted her saying she was suspended from the team.

The formality crushed her. He signed it “Coach Jimmy Hamilton.” He’d always been Coach Jimmy to her, not Coach, or Coach Hamilton, and certainly not Coach Jimmy Hamilton. “I love Coach Jimmy,” she says. “Everybody loves Coach Jimmy. He’s … Coach Jimmy.”

She says she heard next to nothing from school officials over the next few weeks as her suspension dragged on. The team competed twice, with Marshall playing in the Oct. 11 event. She played well but finished last in the field, with a 158-161 (plus-177).

Aycock kept her distance from the team but got an Oct. 26 meeting with Meredith athletic director Dr. Shannon Yates. The meeting was pleasant but Aycock left as confused as ever. She says she received no clear guidance on how long the suspension would last or what she would need to do to be reinstated. Yates said the rap song was problematic, and she pulled out a student-athlete policy form that Aycock had signed. It’s a standard issue conduct policy for a private institution, which means it gives sweeping authority to object to social media posts whenever and however the school would like.

She got a follow-up meeting with Yates on Nov. 21 and breathed a sigh of relief when Yates told her she had been reinstated to the team and that her bio would go back up on the Meredith website soon.

But Aycock is not somebody who moves on without a belief that full accountability has been taken. In this case, she felt left in the wind for two months, supposedly because an alum didn’t like some old TikTok videos. “I’d rather have integrity and be known for that than be a person who gives up her integrity for one golf season,” she says.

Now, Aycock hopes she can get to a good place for the second half of the season, which kicks off in February. She’s been playing golf with her boyfriend, so her game is about the same as before her suspension. She’s not sure how she will ultimately feel about her experience.

“I’ll be grateful to be back on the team because I love my team and my coaches,” Aycock says. “But I don’t love the way I was used as a marketing tool.”

Meredith did not respond to several requests for comment. Marshall didn’t respond to requests for follow-up interviews, which Aycock attributes to a stern email from the school asking the golf team to not comment on unapproved media interviews.

As Aycock starts to talk about the hurt and confusion she still feels, she says she wishes this part of the story could be left out. She doesn’t want to overshadow the remarkable story of her and her friend, Sarah Marshall.

“No matter what, it gave me a best friend,” she says.

IN MID-SEPTEMBER, before the suspension and way after the TikTok videos that could have ended their last hurrah, Aycock and Marshall hit Wildwood Green for a practice round. Marshall is running late, so Aycock plays the first hole, the 10th, without her.

She hits a solid, short but straight tee shot, though that’s after a practice swing where she took out enough soil to plant a small garden. She works her way down the fairway of a par 4 with a string of shots, all using the same iron. Finally, she putts her ball in with something like a 10. She’s not keeping score today.

For the 11th hole, Marshall shows up. She sets her ball on the tee, then unfurls a good blast that covers 150 yards out over a pond. Aycock hits her shot hard … but it veers right so hard to hit a house off to the right far enough that no golf balls should probably hit it. She gets an awesome bounce, though, and her ball ends up very playable, about 100 yards out. They both end up with 8s.

On the 12th hole, about 20 geese have taken residency to the left of the tee. One goose stands tall and glares at them from about 30 feet away. He seems to be the muscle for the group. Aycock and Marshall are unfazed, and Marshall thinks back to their first event and says, “Hey, it’s better than alligators.”

For the next three holes, Aycock and Marshall play exactly like they usually do. They’re much better now, and understand the rulebook inside and out. But there is still a barrage of chunked balls, swings-and-misses and shots from 25 yards that could go 5 yards or 75 yards. They no longer get 23s on holes but neither one has ever birdied or parred a hole. Aycock and Marshall say they’re not sure they’ve had a legit double bogey. Someday, they think.

Hamilton pulls up on his cart to watch at one point. He works at Wildwood Green as the club’s director of instruction, so he’s always around. As he watches, he offers small suggestions about club head angles and not taking your eye off the ball. Both golfers seem to immediately play better, and it’s hard to tell if it’s because of the sage advice or the soothing nature of the sage himself.

Through everything, even the suspension, Aycock loves Hamilton. She still only refers to him as Coach Jimmy. She can’t bring herself to believe he had anything directly to do with the suspension. “He’s not like a confrontational individual,” she says. “I think he’s doing what he has been told he has to do.”

When he leaves, Hamilton mentions the heat (it’s well past 100 degrees even at 7 p.m.) and says, “You put in some work today. If you want to call it a day, the 15th hole is back by the clubhouse and is a good place to pack it in.”

That’s what they decide to do. So as they tee it up on the 15th, this is it for the day. There’s a feeling of giving it one last big push for 10 minutes. Aycock hits a nice drive maybe 100 yards up the hilly 15th. Marshall follows with a damn near perfect rip down the middle of the fairway.

Aycock gets to her ball and hits an iron shot that gets pretty close to Marshall’s first ball. She’s still away, so she hits again, this time skying one off to the right of the green. She’s laying 3 and still 75 yards away. Marshall rockets her second shot straight toward the flag but it’s too long. She’s still trying to harness her power from 75 yards in.

Aycock hits her fourth shot onto the fringe as Marshall walks toward the green.

“Niiiice, Maycee Kay,” she says, and then she stops cold as she sees the green for the first time. Her ball had not gone over the green. Instead, it sat down on the fringe. Holy crap. A birdie putt?

Marshall stands behind the ball and stares down a very long putt, a difficult putt for the first 3 of her life. She and Aycock mention a few times that they routinely hit good shots … but rarely twice in a row.

Aycock senses the gravity of the situation and hustles to clear out for Marshall to finish. She chips her ball near the hole, then putts out for a solid 8. For someone routinely writing down 16s and 18s six months earlier, it’s pretty amazing to see. She steps back to watch her friend.

Marshall’s birdie putt is steady but well short. She’s gone from 50 feet away to 15 feet away, with a tough angle for par. Her first bogey would be an awesome outcome at this point.

Aycock doesn’t say anything. She just stands and watches, holding her putter. Marshall lines it up and putts. The ball rolls toward the corner of the cup but starts to make a turn and … it drops in.

She raises her arms as Aycock goes wild.

“Wow!” Aycock yells as Marshall swoops in to pull her first par ball out of the hole. “Dang, what the heck?” Marshall says. She can’t believe it.

“I’m so proud of you right now,” Aycock says. They hug and hustle off the green together, headed toward the clubhouse.

At the time, they didn’t know a couple of TikTok videos were about to endanger the rest of Aycock’s college golf career. They walk off the green smiling and laughing. They are trying to figure out if they want to have tacos for dinner, or maybe seafood, or … actually, they have no idea. The only thing for certain is, there better be ice cream.

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