This article, written by Augusta Stone, originally appeared in The Red & Black.
Georgia women’s golf senior Isabella Skinner has a special tradition with her teammate junior Rinko Mitsunaga every time they play back-to-back in a tournament: the two exchange friendly waves as they pass one another between holes.
At the 3M Augusta Invitational March 16-18, Mitsunaga noticed that Skinner shot a disappointing hole before they greeted each other.
“When you have a bad hole, it’s hard to look back and wave,” Mitsunaga said.
But Skinner isn’t the kind of person to let a little hiccup get her down.
After retrieving her ball, Skinner turned to Mitsunaga and waved enthusiastically with both hands, an action that boosted the morale of her teammates and motivated everyone to turn their performance around.
The Bulldogs went on to take first place in Augusta that weekend. Skinner shot a 3-over 75 that counted toward the team’s victory and tied her for 22nd place overall.
As Skinner wrapped up her final SEC women’s golf championship April 18-22, where she contributed toward team totals that led to recording the lowest team score on day two, making the number four seed in match play competition and reaching the semifinal round, she reflected on her athletic and personal growth after having spent four years with the Georgia women’s golf program.
When Skinner joined the team her freshman year, she came in with expectations of a perfect career that would begin from the moment she stepped onto the green. She held high hopes of qualifying for every tournament upon arrival.
But she quickly found out that the transition to collegiate golf was much tougher than she anticipated.
“I beat myself up so much for either a mistake I made here or screwing up and not qualifying here,” Skinner said. “I think if I would’ve just been patient with myself I actually would’ve given myself more opportunities to get myself closer to what I had expectations of.”
Skinner’s golf game saw its highs and its lows throughout her first two years at Georgia. She qualified for seven of the 10
team events as a freshman and six of the 12 team events as a sophomore, finishing in the top 20 four times across both seasons. Her highest placement in the first two years came when she tied for 11th place at the 2016 Lady Bulldog Invitational, where she shot a 13-over 157 at her home course.
“I’ve had a lot of moments where I didn’t believe in myself and wasn’t really sure what I was doing,” Skinner said.
Although she experienced self-doubt in her first couple of years, head coach Josh Brewer saw unique traits in Skinner that were unlike those of many other golfers.
When Skinner committed to Georgia at just 16 years old, she based part of her decision on how she and Brewer had immediately clicked upon their first meeting. Brewer attributed their closeness to the fact that they think about golf in a similar way. But more importantly, he admired Skinner’s attitude in the face of toughness and criticism.
“In this sport, you don’t always get to challenge players and be very demanding because they’ll shut down,” Brewer said. “Instead of fighting it, she’s just accepted it.”
Skinner began to come into her own in the summer before her junior year when she qualified for the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur as a first alternate.
It all came together following a search for the perfect caddy, when she looked no further than the person who had been motivating her for the two years prior: Brewer.
“I played really good golf, and it made our relationship so close,” Skinner said. “It’s really helped me over these last two years become that much better of a player to have that kind of relationship with him.”
Skinner made it to match play in the U.S. Amateur, narrowly falling to Thailand’s Paphangkorn Tavatanakit after 19 holes in her first match.
After Skinner found confidence following the U.S. Amateur, teammates were quick to notice. Mitsunaga, who has known Skinner since childhood, attributed Skinner’s attitude change to her growth in their sport.
“Her energy on the golf course is different,” Mitsunaga said. “Because of that, her golf game has become a lot better.”
Skinner entered her final year with the program motivated to contribute to the team as a consistent qualifier.
“Before the year started I said I’m going to make it a goal to not only enjoy everything I do, but to try to give myself every opportunity to play in every event so that I can get the most out of my last year here,” Skinner said.
Skinner met her goal as she qualified for every event in the regular season, an achievement she had yet to make in any of the seasons prior. Skinner also recorded her collegiate career-best score, shooting 4-over in her final home match at the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic this spring.
In terms of leadership, as the only member of her class on the team all four years, Skinner was always aware that she would eventually become the program’s sole senior.
When she officially took on the role this season, Skinner organized dinners and contests at practice among many other team building activities to cultivate a comfortable environment for golfers both new and old. In doing this, she hoped to place importance on the fact that everyone on the team should feel secure both as teammates and as people.
Mitsunaga, who will be one of three seniors leading the team after Skinner’s departure, hopes to continue the close atmosphere into next season.
“She’s helped this team’s chemistry become more of a family,” Mitsunaga said. “She has created that environment of being open and embracing each other through the downs and the ups.”
Coach Brewer believes that Skinner succeeded both in bringing the team together and setting high goals for achievement.
During Skinner’s senior season, the Georgia women’s golf team finished in the top five in five of its nine regular season tournaments, highlighted by two first place finishes in the spring.
“She has helped to build something very unique here,” Brewer said. “She’s left that true foundation now. I’m gonna miss the heck out of her because who fills that spot?”
Following the conclusion of her collegiate golf career, Skinner will begin work on a masters degree in accounting, a passion she says she never would have expected to have. And although she doesn’t have plans to go professional, Skinner does intend to stay active in amateur events across the nation with the hopes of someday being inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
While it is evident that she is excited for her future in accounting and amateur events, Skinner admits that she has shed some tears over the looming end of her golf career in Athens.
“There have been moments where I’ve been tired and I’ve been frustrated with the sport,” Skinner said. “But I never once wanted it to end.”