Hayley Milbourn '11: In a League of Her Own

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When Amherst head women’s golf coach Michelle Morgan asked members of her team to describe themselves with one word, first-year Hayley Milbourn chose “competitor.” One would think, then, that Milbourn has a do-what-it-takes-to-win type of attitude when she steps out on the course — but it’s actually quite the opposite.

Milbourn can’t recall the first time she went golfing, but she knows that it was her dad who got her started. Apparently he did something right, as Milbourn went on to become one of the country’s best golfers at the high school level. From 2005 to 2007, she posted a 23-0 individual record, led Roland Park Country Day School to two Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland state championships, and earned a pair of individual state titles and National High School Golf Coaches Association All-America honors.

Milbourn would have won a third consecutive individual state championship in 2007 to go along with her team’s title, but she finally met her match: pride. On the second-to-last hole of the 2007 state championship, she unknowingly hit the wrong ball on her second shot, a clear violation subject to severe penalty. It was not until she had completed her 18 holes that she realized what she had done, as she informed the officials hoping for merely a several-stroke penalty, but knowing that a disqualification was certainly a possibility.

Oh, and it might be worth mentioning she held a nine-stroke lead when she hit the wrong ball, with her third consecutive state title pretty much in the bag. She made a mistake that nobody witnessed, and she could have easily kept quiet and collected another trophy, as most people likely would have done.

To the tournament officials, it was a clear-cut decision — disqualification. No sympathy. No argument. No third consecutive state championship. The next day, Milbourn recalls being embarrassed. “I didn’t know what people would think when they saw a ‘DQ’ next to my name,” she says. “I was worried they would think I did something awful!”

Word of Milbourn’s honesty spread quickly. “I got a lot of e-mails the next day,” she says. “People congratulated me for playing well, and also for being so honest. I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision.”

And it wasn’t just parents and friends who took notice of Milbourn. On August 9, 2007, ESPN.com published an article about cheating that made several references to recent allegations in professional sports. The article identified Milbourn as one of the few “moments of hope” during a time when cheating seemed to be so common.

But that story is in the past, and Milbourn has moved on, apparently unfazed by her disqualification, because she is now dominating at the collegiate level.

And she’s not just dominating Division III — she’s dominating all of women’s collegiate golf. At the Dartmouth Invitational, which featured Division I powerhouses like Harvard University, Milbourn shot a career-best 71 (1-under par) in the first round. “I was very nervous to play as the No. 1; I certainly didn’t expect that,” says Milbourn. “I don’t think I remember anything from that first round. I was in a zone like I’ve never been in before. But even as I was doing well, I kept assuming that girls from Harvard must be doing just as well, if not better.”

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But they weren’t doing better. At the end of the first round, Milbourn was the only player under par. Players were able to close the gap in the second round, but the Amherst first-year maintained composure, even with five Harvard players breathing down her neck (all five of Harvard’s women finished in the top eight). After the final hole, Milbourn held a one-stroke lead to mark her first collegiate victory. “I didn’t have any expectations heading into it,” she says. “I just tried my best.”

(In case you think this is a case of beginner’s luck, Milbourn also won the Mount Holyoke Invitational the following weekend on a course she had never even practiced on, leading Amherst to a fifth-place finish behind the likes of Boston University and Williams College.)

The obvious question, then, is “Why did Hayley Milbourn come to Amherst College?” If she can out-play golfers from Division I schools, she could certainly play for a national powerhouse. “Coming to Amherst was a pretty easy choice,” says Milbourn. “I had to go where I could play both squash and golf; I couldn’t see myself choosing one over the other because I love them both so much. I knew I would get tired if I focused on only one sport.”

Morgan appears to have hit the jackpot: a first-year with incredible talent and character who simply wants to play to her fullest potential every time she sets foot on a golf course. “It’s nice to see Amherst attracting students of such good character,” says Morgan. “She is very much a team player — she blends her own success into the team’s achievements. She is definitely a role model.”

Assistant coach Sarah Harper ’07 adds, “Hayley knows she can get better. She’s not completely satisfied with the way she’s playing, and that’s very exciting for us.”

There is, however, a challenge that comes with having a player like Milbourn. Morgan notes that Milbourn’s raw talent makes her very coachable, but the difficulty is avoiding interfering with that natural ability. “She has a true golf sense, and is a very instinctual player,” says Morgan. “My job is to pinpoint exactly why Hayley is successful, and then to take her to the next level by making her consistent. There is a fine line between refining her and interfering with her.”

But both coach and player are up for the challenge. While Morgan describes Milbourn as an unflappable player with a cool head on her shoulders, Hayley is eager to learn. “I know that my coaches have a lot to teach me about golf in general,” she says, “but also about playing golf in college.”

When asked if she has set any goals for her playing career at Amherst, Milbourn says ‘no.’ “I don’t know what to expect. It’s still very early, and setting goals will come with my experience.”

Makes sense. She’s still figuring out how to be a college student, let alone how to be known as one of the best female golfers in college. For now, all she really knows is that Amherst has been good to her thus far. “There’s a great atmosphere on campus. People are very friendly, and I feel very comfortable here.” Good news for Morgan.

Amherst has only two more matches this fall, but you’ll hear Milbourn’s name again when the Jeffs resume playing in the spring season. In the winter, she will transfer her domination to the squash courts, where she is currently 31st in the country in the United States Squash Racquets Association rankings for the under-19 division, and will bring exceptional talent to the Amherst team.

But that’s another story for another day.