Two months ago, Olivia Mehaffey and her Arizona State team had just stepped off the ferry at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Honolulu when their phones started buzzing.
The NCAA had canceled the rest of the season and effectively ended the career of Mehaffey, the Sun Devils’ lone senior.
“We’re at Pearl Harbor, so it was already somber to begin with, but when we got the news, we all just stood there, huddled, and just broke down in tears,” Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye said. “It was so devastating, especially for Liv. But as I told her then, ‘I have trouble believing that you have hit your last shot for Arizona State.’”
Turns out, Farr-Kaye was right.
Mehaffey, a four-time All-American from Belfast, Northern Ireland, decided a few weeks ago that she was going to take advantage of her extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA and return to Arizona State for a fifth season. However, she initially planned to also enter LPGA Q-School and turn pro midseason if she earned status through Q-Series.
Now, with the LPGA recently canceling Q-Series this year, Mehaffey is committed to one more full year in Tempe, as she pursues her Master’s degree in organizational leadership.
“It’s been a roller coaster for the past few weeks, just not knowing what’s ahead,” Mehaffey told GolfChannel.com. “The way I look at it is I was very lucky; I had two great options. And it could also end up being a silver lining. It was going to be quite difficult to get sponsors. Maybe it’s a good thing to wait for another year.
“After all, one year in your life isn’t too much.”
Mehaffey isn’t alone. Of the 15 seniors who finished this season ranked in the top 50 of Golfstat’s women’s rankings, eight, including Wake Forest’s Siyun Liu and South Carolina teammates Ana Pelaez and Lois Kaye Go, are choosing to return to school. Three more are undecided, including Kent State’s Pimnipa Panthong, while four, including Furman’s Natalie Srinivasan and Duke’s Ana Belac, are still turning pro.
For Mehaffey, coming back keeps several doors open. Not only will she have the chance to defend her Pac-12 title, secure a mindboggling fifth All-America honor and play several notable amateur events again (including potentially a third Curtis Cup), she also keeps her dream alive of winning another NCAA Championship, this time at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, where Mehaffey has played numerous times and developed close relationships with many of the members and staff.
“She kept saying this year in all of our team meetings that she wants to leave with another national championship,” Farr-Kaye said. “She’d tell the other girls, ‘I want you guys to experience what I got to experience.’”
Mehaffey was a freshman when she won her first NCAA team title at Rich Harvest Farms in 2017. That year’s team belonged to senior Monica Vaughn, but Mehaffey, despite being so young, was already a leader in her own right. Perhaps it’s because of her upbringing – honing her skills at prestigious Royal County Down, playing her first national-team golf for Ireland at age 13, learning from older GB&I peers such as Leona Maguire and Bronte Law – but Mehaffey possessed an innate confidence that has only strengthened.
Farr-Kaye remembers the night before the championship began, she asked each of her five players to write down on a piece of paper where they wanted to play should the Sun Devils make match play. Mehaffey expressed that she wanted to lead off and set the tone.
“There was no hesistation,” Farr-Kaye said. “She goes, ‘I want to be the first out in every match and I’m going to get my point, and then I’m going to come back and cheer everybody else on.’”
Mehaffey did, emphatically, going 3-0 and not letting any of her matches get to the 18th hole.
That year, the Sun Devils’ team mantra was “all-in.” Mehaffey has stayed true to that theme ever since.
It’s part of the reason why she put too much pressure on herself last fall after returning from a hand injury that she suffered while hiking with her family in Newcastle’s Mourne Mountains at the start of the summer. The injury forced her out of competition for more than two months, and when she returned to school, she had only just finished her rehab.
In four fall starts, Mehaffey didn’t notch a single top-10 and finished outside of the top 20 three times.
“I had really high expectations for myself; I wanted to leave a legacy, all these things that put pressure on you as a senior,” Mehaffey said. “And I didn’t play well at all in the fall.”
It took her until January to really turn the corner, but from there she quickly began to rediscover her All-American-level game. She notched two top-6 finishes in three starts, including an impressive runner-up showing at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge.
“She was on her way back to being that spark on the golf course like she’s always been,” Farr-Kaye said.
Farr-Kaye always talks about how it would be impossible to replicate what Mehaffey brings to the table, between her leadership abilities, golf talent and infectious personality.
Luckily for her, though, she won’t have to for another year.
Mehaffey still has plenty more shots to hit as a Sun Devil.
Here’s a list of the women’s seniors who finished last season ranked in Golfstat’s top 50 and what their plans are in regards to turning pro or returning to school:
- Natalie Srinivasan, Furman (1)
- Ana Belac, Duke (10)
- Karoline Stormo, Kent State (39)
- Allyson Geer-Park, Michigan State (41)
- Kenzie Wright, Alabama (16)
- Elodie Chapelet, Baylor (22)
- Renate Grimstad, Miami (28)
- Siyun Liu, Wake Forest (32)
- Olivia Mehaffey, Arizona State (34)
- Ana Pelaez, South Carolina (38)
- Lois Kaye Go, South Carolina (45)
- Lauren Hartlage, Louisville (50)
- Allisen Corpuz, USC (14)
- Pimnipa Panthong, Kent State (27)
- Momoka Kobori, Pepperdine (48)