Golf can play tricks on even the most strong-minded individuals.
Amid Bellingham golfer Brooke Branigan's senior season, which included a fourth consecutive state championship and a third place individual state finish, existed struggles that left her questioning whether she'd placed too much expectation on herself.
High aspirations followed Branigan into her final prep season, a natural effect given her three prior top 15 state finishes. She placed extra emphasis on improving her game during the offseason, and when hard work wasn't reflected on her scorecard, frustration infiltrated her mind and affected her game.
"I had to overcome a lot of adversity this season," Branigan said in a phone interview. "I had too many expectations for myself. When I didn't live up to my expectations, I was hard on myself. I always want to improve on what I did last year. I also put a lot of work in during the offseason and really wanted to see it pay off."
Results showed at practice, but low scores proved elusive when it counted.
"This is a game that can humble you pretty quickly," coach Brad McKay said in a phone interview. "I think she gave herself very little room for error. She had a petty good year for us and scored a lot of points, but what was most valuable was her ability to provide a good example and keep us moving in the right direction."
Oddly enough, it was Grandview Golf Course, a historically difficult place for Branigan, where she began her late-season surge.
She recorded 68 Stableford points, matching her highest total of the year, snagging medalist honors while learning a new way to approach her final season.
"At Grandview I finally turned in around," she said. "I came into that tournament with a different mindset."
McKay and the Red Raiders use the acronym NATO, meaning not attached to the outcome, and Branigan began fully embracing it.
"I think the most important thing out there is to have fun," she said. "I worked on trying to enjoy myself as the season went on instead of thinking about the end results. I started enjoying each time I played, because I knew this would be my last time playing in a high-school setting."
Branigan backed her 68 points at Grandview with 66 points at Lake Padden Golf Course the following week and a third-place score of 80 during the Class 2A Northwest District Tournament. She fired a two-day 166 to take third at state, which was the top finish of Bellingham's Big Four (Branigan, Madi McNeely, Audrey Orem and Jenn Paul).
The Red Raiders senior has been selected The Bellingham Herald's girls' golf All-Whatcom County Player of the Year. It's her second consecutive year being recognized.
Paul, who finished fourth at state and was selected All-Northwest Conference Player of the Year, Orem, who placed sixth and recorded the second most Stableford points in the NWC, and McNeely, who placed ninth at state, were all worthy Player of the Year choices and deserved to be, Branigan said.
What the foursome accomplished was exceptional. Not only did they help Bellingham claim its 11th state title in the past 12 years, they didn't lose one tournament, an achievement Branigan said made the season extra special.
Branigan's played on dominant teams each of her four years, but the intense competition this season pushed everyone to improve and prepared Branigan for college golf. She's set to enroll this fall at Western Washington University where she'll play on the women's golf team with Orem.
The Red Raiders regularly challenged each other, whether it was during tournaments or facing off in chipping and putting battles at practice. Camaraderie became synonymous with competition, though, and the Red Raiders flat out had fun this spring.
"I think our team had amazing chemistry," Branigan said, "better than any team I've played on before. Our top four players were all best friends and very competitive with each other. We wanted to beat each other, and at the same time, if we were going to get beat, we didn't want anybody to beat us other than each other."
More so than her skill or the many tournament wins or her numerous top placings, the three-year captain will be revered for her leadership and work ethic, McKay said.
The Bellingham coach has watched plenty of talents during the Red Raiders' reign, but what differentiates Branigan from the rest?
"She really did live the team-first attitude," McKay said. "She did whatever was best for the team. Out of all the players I've coached, she's really manifested the characteristics of team-first and is probably the best captain we've ever had. She really was a pleasure to coach."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
PREVIOUS PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2013: Brooke Branigan, Bellingham
2012: Brooke Branigan, Bellingham
2011: Jenn Paul, Bellingham
2010: Jessica Davis, Bellingham
2009: Claire Rachor, Bellingham
2008: Claire Rachor, Bellingham
2007: Katie Sharpe, Bellingham
2006: Paige Rachor, Bellingham
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.