Wade makes her way back to UGA in a new capacity on the golf course

Whitney Wade made an 8-foot putt to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2009.

At that moment, she realized she could play alongside the best players in the world.

Hired as an assistant coach for the Georgia women’s golf team less than a year ago, Wade has yet to experience any great coaching moments to match that putt.

Perhaps one will come during the Southeastern Conference championships, which conclude today in Birmingham, Ala.

In her four years playing at Georgia, Wade led the Bulldogs to win 10 team tournament titles, including the 2007 SEC championship her senior year.

“I went last spring without a coach,” Bulldogs head coach Josh Brewer said. “I was really being patient, wondering who I was going to find. Whitney called me and submitted a résumé. I loved her résumé, liked the fact that she was here, played here and once I met her in person, I knew she was the right fit.”

The 28-year-old Wade exemplified toughness as a college and professional player. With the Glasgow, Ky., native on the roster, the Bulldogs had three top-10 finishes in the NCAA championships.

“Georgia’s always been a great program, but they haven’t won the SECs since 2007,” said Wade, whose team sat in eighth after Saturday’s second round of the SEC championships in Birmingham, Ala. “We need to get back to a great program, where they’re competing for a national championship.”

Wade played in three U.S. Opens as a professional golfer. She finished in the top 10 nine times on the Futures Tour. She earned her LPGA Tour card in 2010.

A friend asked Wade to be a volunteer coach at Maryland in 2011.

“I just really enjoyed my time up there, getting to know the girls,” Wade said. “Even if they didn’t want to turn professional or play professional golf, I felt like I could just make them a better person, get them ready for the real world.”

In search of her next move, Wade took an assistant coaching position at Coastal Carolina in 2012. Coastal Carolina, which had just been to nationals the year before, was a great training ground, Wade said.  

At Coastal Carolina, she had the opportunity to grow as a coach and was allotted an immense amount of free rein to work hands-on with players, she said. Coastal Carolina was preparing her for something even greater.

“This (Georgia) job opens after about eight months of coaching at Coastal (Carolina),” Wade said. “I hated to leave Coastal, but it’s the University of Georgia. It is my alma mater. I couldn’t pass up to at least apply.”

Wade applied, was hired and now calls Athens home again, as she did seven years ago. Many things are the same, such as some of the familiar faces on Georgia’s staff.

“I remember when she was on the team. She was so sweet and she’s like that now,” said Denise Saliba, a program specialist. “We’re all glad to have her back.”

Saliba has worked at the Georgia Boyd Golf Center’s front desk for more than 15 years.

But the team’s performance is not how it was when Wade graduated with a degree in speech communications in 2007.

She said she hopes that she is the right fit to help get the program back to where it used to be.

The first step is making it to regionals, then to nationals to compete for a national championship.

“We’re just really working hard (to get) their mentality to, ‘We are winners. We can beat the UCLAs, Southern California, Duke, Alabama,’” she said. “We are just as good, but we need them to believe that. I think they’re lacking confidence and we’re trying to instill that back in their heads.”

Wade said that Brewer’s help has been critical in her adjustment to assistant coaching. Brewer, hired by Georgia in 2012, takes time to answer her questions and allows her to learn which coaching methods work best for her, she said.

Wade has learned that there is more to coaching than simply teaching a player how to hold a putter or nail a bunker shot.

“She didn’t recruit any of these players, so it (has) taken her about five or six months to know who they are,” Brewer said. “She has done a good job of learning them and finding what buttons to push to make them play better.”

The team had just three top-10 finishes out of 11 matches in the fall. The spring has brought better results, and Wade said she is confident that the team can progress even more in the postseason.

Play has improved, as seen in the John Kirk Panther Intercollegiate earlier this month in Stockbridge. Sophomore Amira Alexander performed particularly well, finishing in a three-way tie to advance to a sudden-death playoff.

“I have actually had six different coaches — a new assistant every year,” senior golfer Amelia Hill said. “It’s a huge advantage having an assistant coach that played both at Georgia and professionally because she’s been in our shoes and can easily relate to what we are going through.”

Along with leveraging her ability to relate, Wade encourages healthy competition on and off the golf course through team dodgeball and basketball games. She hopes that igniting the team’s competitiveness with each other will prepare them for their opponents.

“We’re making strides, little strides at a time,” Wade said. “It’s kind of like a ladder — we’re taking little steps and I think we’re eventually (going to) get to the top of the ladder.”

The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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