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Former UVA star Lauren Coughlin has renewed hope on LPGA Tour
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Former UVA star Lauren Coughlin has renewed hope on LPGA Tour

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Two hours before her tee time, Lauren Coughlin called her husband and unloaded. Weary of golf and burdened by disappointment, she was on the brink of abandoning her dream.

Two days later, the 2016 ACC individual champion and University of Virginia graduate was celebrating her first professional victory.

Coughlin has yet to win again as a pro, but she entered the LPGA Tour’s Pure Silk Championship in Williamsburg playing the finest golf of her life, good vibes that continued Thursday with her 1-under-par 70 opening round on Kingsmill’s River Course.

She’s longer off the tee, more physically fit and teeming with confidence, a transformation that can be traced to Aug. 10, 2018, in the parking lot of Brown Deer Park Golf Course in Milwaukee.

That’s where Coughlin was scheduled to compete in the PHC Classic, an event on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s developmental circuit. She had spent most of her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, but with no finish better than 50th and far more missed cuts than made, she was spent.

Coughlin called her husband of less than seven months, former Virginia offensive lineman John Pond, and “bawled.” She said she was “miserable” and ready to quit.

Pond, an associate director of development for UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, felt helpless. He was more than 800 miles away and wanted to console his bride in-person. Instead, he encouraged Coughlin to finish the season and then re-assess.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever told her,” Pond said, “but as soon as she hung up the phone, I … bawled — until I saw she shot 5 under.”

Yes, Coughlin carded a 67 that day, followed by rounds of 67 and 66 to win the tournament. Her ensuing offseason became one of rededication rather than reflection.

Coughlin’s most essential change was a devotion to fitness. John Lewellen, whose wife, Kim, coached Coughlin at UVA and now coaches at Wake Forest, directed Coughlin’s program, a combination of weight and cardio training.

No longer do her knees ache in the latter stages of a 72-hole tournament. No longer is bending to read putts a chore.

Stronger and 35 pounds leaner, Coughlin added about 30 yards to her average drive, which is now more than 280 yards.

“It’s just kind of changed everything for me,” Coughlin said of working out.

A two-time state women’s amateur champion, Coughlin played primarily on the Symetra Tour in 2019 and ’20, recording eight top-10 finishes. She’s added two more Symetra top-10s this season, along with a 43rd-place tie in her lone LPGA Tour start prior to this week.

Growing up in nearby Chesapeake, Coughlin attended several LPGA tournaments at Kingsmill’s River Course. She missed the cut there as a sponsor’s exemption in 2017 and tied for 50th in 2018, less than three months before her victory in Milwaukee.

“I still have to pinch myself a little bit that I’m playing in it to be honest,” Coughlin said, “even with … some of the people I grew up coming and watching, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis. At my parent’s house I still have some hats that Annika [Sorenstam] signed, Lorena [Ochoa].”

The River Course also played a central role in Coughlin’s UVA recruitment. It was her junior year at Hickory High School, and then-assistant coach Brian Bailey drove to Williamsburg to watch her in an American Junior Golf Association event.

As Coughlin recalls, she shot about 40 on the front side as Bailey observed and 30 on the back nine after he left. The Cavaliers still recruited her, and Coughlin and Bailey reminisced about the moment Sunday when they played a practice round in Charlottesville.

Coughlin and Pond (Matoaca) met at Virginia, and he proposed on the 18th green after her 2016 ACC title in Greensboro, N.C. — the Cavaliers also won the team championship that afternoon. They were married in the UVA Chapel, staged their reception at The Colonnade Club and jetted the next morning to the Bahamas for the season-opening LPGA Tour event.

Pond caddied some for Coughlin, including at Kingsmill in 2018, but he ceded that gig to more qualified folks and will be in the gallery this week. Sponsors such as Chesapeake businessman Johnny Garcia have eased Coughlin’s financial stress — Pond estimates weekly Tour expenses at $2,000-plus — and a friendship with fellow pro and former UVA teammate Elizabeth Szokol has made Tour life less lonely.

Szokol, a bridesmaid in Coughlin’s wedding, also is competing this week and shot 3-under 68 Thursday.

“Each day, each week is getting better in terms of my confidence and my belief in myself,” Coughlin said.

“Whenever she tees it up in one of these big LPGA events,” Pond said, “I find myself looking back … and how easy it would have been to just go lead a normal life, work 9-to-5 and not have any of the stuff that’s come since.

“I don’t think she realizes sometimes how much she’s stepped up, but it’s pretty cool to see.”

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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