Sandhills Women: Golf and the Girl from Hoke
This is one in a series of articles on women in golf in the Sandhills.
Sally Austin grew up in Raeford and fell in love with the game of golf at an early age, encouraged by her father.
She played for the University of North Carolina and went on to coach women’s golf there for several years before resigning to spend time with her late father.
Austin is now teaching the game and is still capable of shooting par or better. She tells about her career as a player, a coach and a teacher in the following interview:
Q. I know you’re a Hoke County girl who fell in love with golf at an early age. How did that happen, and where did you play?
A. Just like most of the kids in my neighborhood, I played football, basketball and baseball in our backyards. Knowing that I couldn’t play those sports all of my life and being an avid golfer who loved the game, my dad introduced me to golf because I could play that game all of my life. Early on I played mostly at Arabia Golf Course near Raeford and some at Pinehurst during the summers.
Q. At what point did you realize that you might have a future in the sport, and who was the major influence in your decision to pursue it as a profession?
A. When I was maybe 12 my dad started my brother and me in a summer junior golf program at Pinehurst. It was held every Monday morning during the summer by Parker Hall. He brought in different people to help us and charged $1 for the summer. We were able to play any of the Pinehurst courses, and at the end of the summer we had a tournament. I suppose that was when my interest began to grow.
When I was maybe 13 I began taking lessons from Peggy Kirk Bell at Pine Needles. She never charged me a dime and opened Pine Needles to me to practice and play. It was the kindness and generosity of people like the Bells and Parker Hall that made it possible for me to play and develop my game, and I began playing junior golf tournaments.
Bonnie Bell McGowan and I traveled to our first junior tournament together. I loved the competition. I would have to say that because of the encouragement of people like my dad, Mrs. Bell, Parker Hall and others that my interest in golf grew and that I began to consider the possibility of playing professionally.
Q. You had an interesting college career. Can you list some highlights? What did you enjoy most or like the least about coaching?
A. Shortly before I entered UNC as a student, Dad spoke to then-UNC athletics director Homer Rice about the possibility of starting a women’s golf team at Carolina. Mr. Rice told Dad to have me come see him when I got to Carolina. I did, and he agreed to start the team. So my freshman year the first UNC women’s team began.
Mindy Moore and I were the first players. Mindy went on to play the LPGA, was eventually elected president and still works for the LPGA. The two of us were the nucleus of that first team. By our senior year we were a top 20-25 team, and Dot Gunnells was the coach. One of the big thrills was qualifying for the national championship, then the AIAW, in Hawaii.
I loved playing on the team and competing. Coach Gunnells was our third coach. She stayed and the program grew and succeeded. After years as the part-time assistant, I became the head coach in 1993. I loved working with the players and getting to know them.
There were things about recruiting that I liked and things that I didn’t. I loved getting to know so many young players. I wasn’t so fond of the paperwork and the politics.
Q. Talk about your career as a professional player and what you consider your top achievements on the LPGA Tour.
A. First of all, I think I went through maybe nine qualifying schools before I got my card. Finally making it through was thrilling. I played in three U.S. Opens. That was incredible.
My best tournament was at the Henredon in High Point. It was lots of fun to play well in front of the “home crowd” and I think I finished 11th. Before the LPGA I played on the mini-tours here and in Europe and Asia. I loved the travel and feel very fortunate to have been able to see so much of this country and the world. I did win some tournaments on the mini-tours.
Q. Was there an incident or a moment when you decided playing professionally was not for you?
A. Yes. After I lost my card and tried that last Q school I decided it was time to move on.
Q. How did you come to get the coaching job at the University of North Carolina? How long were you there?
A. I was the part-time assistant under coach Gunnells for several years before getting the head job in 1993. I was head coach until 2009
Q. Why did you decide to leave coaching at such an early age and with the success you had achieved?
A. My dad was 94 and I wanted to be able to spend time with him and be there for him if he needed me. My brother lived in Raeford and was there for Dad every day, but I wanted to be able to help out more. It was time to move on.
Q. You had several options after leaving UNC. Why did you decide to become an instructor at Pine Needles?
A. I’m a teaching professional at Chapel Hill Country Club and am fortunate enough to also teach in some of the schools at Pine Needles. It’s what I love to do and the people at Chapel Hill CC are terrific. I love Pine Needles and will teach there as much as they need me. Who wouldn’t want to be at Pine Needles as much as they could?
Q. You’ve had an exciting and interesting voyage in the world of golf so far. What do you envision for the future?
A. I feel very fortunate to play this great game. It has made it possible for me to meet some amazing people and make lifelong friends. I have traveled pretty much all over the world because of golf, and I’ve seen a lot of places and met a lot of wonderful people. I hope to keep teaching and playing golf and meeting lots of people.
Pine Needles is pretty much home to me, so I will teach anytime they need me at their schools and I love Chapel Hill and hope to continue to teach there. Who knows what else may come down the road?
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