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Golfweek.com: Harvard all business at Conference Challenge

Pictured: Christine Cho at Golfweek's Conference Challenge. Courtesy of John Kabasakalis

Story by Beth Ann Baldry, Golfweek.com

PRIMM, Nev. - There's a joke in the Golfweek office that editor Jeff Babineau and I attended "Little Harvard of the South." That's code for Florida Southern College, our fine Division II alma mater.

Suffice to say that Lakeland, Fla., is a long way from Cambridge, Mass. While the two golf teams might have a good tussle, everything else about the private institutions seems worlds apart.

The Harvard name screams excellence. Last year this team of overachievers surpassed even its own expectations with a mind-boggling record of 55-1 in regular-season competition. The Crimson won the Ivy League crown for the second time in school history and advanced to NCAA regionals.

The Harvard team, however, is smart enough to know that last year's success, while incredible, isn't the ticket to national prominence. To be the best, teams have to play the best. Thus, Harvard finished last season ranked 89th.

Senior Claire Sheldon didn't mince words: "Our schedule isn't that competitive."

That's where Golfweek's Conference Challenge comes into play.

Harvard has gone to regionals the last two years - in the middle of final exams - and finished 19th. Or, as senior Sarah Harvey puts it, "got schooled."

Harvard kids don't typically get "schooled" at anything. But coach Kevin Rhoads doesn't recruit players who think golf first, school second. Harvard has had only one player (Leslie Greis '80) turn professional in the program's history. Actually, Greis was a three-year letterwinner on the men's team. The women's golf program started in 1993.

Sheldon and Harvey, two seniors in Harvard's lineup this week, have talked to several players they've met on the fairways at Primm Valley who plan to join the Duramed Futures Tour next spring. It's unusual for them to run across aspiring pros in the Ivy League. With the job market this dismal, Sheldon agrees now is the time to turn pro.

Not for her, of course.

Tuition and room and board at Harvard this academic year is a cool $48,868. These two seniors hope to parlay their superior education into a superior job. But they aspire to leave an even bigger mark on the Harvard program before they go.

"We want to show that we can run with most of the teams (in this field)," Sheldon said.

Golfweek's Conference Challenge gives teams like Harvard an opportunity to compete against a field similar to regionals, meaning more experience and a chance to improve their ranking.

Rhoads believes freshman Katie Sylvan has the potential to be one of the best players in Ivy League history. Before committing to Harvard, her short list of schools included Virginia, Stanford, Northwestern and Yale. Harvard's academic prestige helps lure players like Sylvan, but it also serves as a double-edged sword.

When Rhoads goes to a tournament like the U.S. Girls' Junior to recruit, realistically there are only two to three players that fit the Harvard profile. The pool is absurdly shallow.

Talking to Rhoads' well-spoken team for 30 minutes explains why.

Junior Mia Kabasakalis spent the summer working in Washington at Senator Dianne Feinstein's office. The experience solidified her decision to go into politics. Sheldon worked on a research project that goes hand-in-hand with her psychology degree. Harvey spent the summer in the woods of Fort Lewis at ROTC training camp. She hopes to join the New York National Guard upon graduation and land a job using her economics degree.

The Harvard women are humble, but it's quite obvious that mediocrity is not an option - in any area of their lives.

"They're basically always studying when they're not on the course," said Rhoads, who did take his team to the Vegas Strip Monday night for a welcome respite.

Harvard heads into the final round at Primm Valley in ninth place, a respectable position that likely won't satisfy. Still, any golf tournament is better than the stark reality of what comes next.

When Harvey returns to campus, she has an appointment with the office of career services. Even with a coveted Harvard degree, the economics major is painfully aware of the job market that awaits.

"There's a lot of pressure on campus to go on interviews," Harvey said. Just the sight of a fellow senior walking through campus in a pressed suit can feel overwhelming.

"Luckily, we have golf to distract us," Harvey said.

Smart woman.