She’s alone again.

Drury senior golfer Katrina Choate is playing in her third consecutive NCAA championship. It’s a noteworthy accomplishment for any collegiate golfer, but one that feels somewhat empty with no teammates there to battle alongside her and to cheer her march down the 18th fairway. Three teams from Drury’s region qualify for the year’s biggest tournament. Drury has finished fourth each of the last three years, forcing the talented Choate – eighth in the nation in scoring this season, averaging 75.25 strokes through 24 competitive rounds – to leave her teammates behind.

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At this week’s DII Spring Festival in Louisville, she’s joined only by her coach, Lisa Tinkler, her parents and her brother.

“It’s definitely an honor and a privilege to be here three years in a row,” Choate said. “The team – we’re a big family. I definitely wish they were here with me.”

That Choate has earned the right to play for a national championship even once is a testament to her resilient nature. Her collegiate golf career was nearly derailed before it began. As a freshman, her left ACL snapped during an intramural basketball game early in the spring semester. She and Tinkler decided her best course of action would be to take a medical redshirt and stay at Drury for five years.

Her freshman season lost, Choate didn’t worry she’d lose her scholarship, but was concerned that her game – particularly the power she displays with short irons – might never return. After she endured months of grueling physical therapy, testing her pain threshold and the strength of her surgically repaired joint, she wasn’t the same when she returned to the tee box.

“It was so weak,” Choate said. “You really load all your weight onto that left side as you’re coming through. I started to develop some bad habits with my golf swing.”

It took Choate nearly a full year to finally trust that her leg wouldn’t buckle when she swung and to break those habits she’d formed overcompensating for the weakened limb. In her first season back on the course, she routinely didn’t travel to tournaments with the team, unable to post practice scores low enough for Tinkler to trust her in competition. Nevertheless, Tinkler never doubted that Choate would eventually regain the form that would’ve made her the team’s unquestioned star. It was in her pupil’s nature to persevere, Tinkler realized. That would be the only season Choate didn’t qualify to play for the NCAA championship.

“I can honestly say that I knew she would rebound and actually figured she would be stronger,” Tinkler said. “And I wouldn’t say that about just anybody.”

Choate’s ability to persevere was evident not only in her recovery from a potentially career-threatening knee injury, but in the classroom. She graduated in December with a 3.91 GPA. In the fall, she balanced her golf schedule with a full-time job student-teaching high school math and has spent the spring season substitute teaching and hunting for a permanent teaching and coaching job.

Dipping her toe into working life while simultaneously trying to lead her team to the NCAA championship was an even more daunting challenge than rehabilitating a failed ligament.

“This last year has been the biggest challenge,” Choate said. “I’m pretty much used to the go-go lifestyle, but it’s not easy.”

SCORECARD
Katrina Choate had her best round of the NCAA tournament in Friday's third round.
See Katrina's scorecard

While her knee occasionally pains her as she walks 18 hilly holes, her worries about life after college have been a bigger hindrance. Tinkler hinted that Choate lost focus through the spring as she tried to find an employer. The coach worked hard to convince her golfer that the course should be a refuge from her worries, not a venue to stew over career uncertainty. It seemed Choate got the message, as she finished second overall during the regional championship tournament in early May.

“We’ve had some talks about it,” Tinkler said. “Focus on golf now and let’s worry about getting that job later.”

But those career worries may have returned this week, as Choate did a few job interviews over the phone on the trip to Louisville. That drive was a lonely one – no large white van, filled with laughing teammates, was needed. The rest of Drury’s team lingered on campus, seven strokes shy of playing alongside their leader for a shot at the national championship. Thus far, Choate has been off her game in her final competition. After finishing her third round on Friday, she was in a tie for 35th place, 29 strokes over par.

“It meant the world to her for them to be here,” Tinkler said. “It broke her heart.”