BRADENTON, Fla. -- It’s like old times this week for Tennessee senior A.J. Newell, except that her father isn’t trailing her to keep her on a fairway, and some pesky home videos apparently haven’t surfaced as blackmail material for her Volunteer teammates.
“There’s video of me in diapers running around the house with my golf club,” Newell admitted following Friday’s first round of the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship.That would be the tiny club her father had made for her as a toddler’s toy, well before A.J.’s sister and current freshman teammate Anna Newell arrived. The Tampa-area natives figure they were born for this week, with the 2015 NCAA finals being played at the Concession Golf Club an hour south of their hometown.
Not only were their parents in Tennessee’s Friday gallery, so was one of their youth-era coaches who hadn’t seen the sisters play on the collegiate level. The Newell Fan Club is expected to swell during Saturday’s and Sunday’s second and third rounds, respectively.
“It’s pretty cool to be out there wearing my Tennessee clothes and to have my coach there watching me,” A.J. said. “And I think we’re going to have some other family friends out the rest of the week and a few other of our coaches too. It’s nice to have a lot of orange following you around.”
“Mom watched me, Dad watched her,” Anna said of parents Jon and Robin Newell. “Just like the good old days back when we were in middle school.”
The sisters acquitted themselves Friday on a tough Concession course that took bites out of some top-ranked teams. Anna, playing at No. 3 for Tennessee, shot a three-over-par 75. A.J., playing at No. 4, shot a one-over 73. The Volunteers carded a collective 13-over-par 301.
“We were back-to-back today in the lineup so it worked out perfect so that they could kind of stand between us and watch both of us hit shots,” A.J. said of their parents. “It worked out really well.”
Their parents are largely responsible for the situation, aside from the obvious. Jon Newell is a former track-and-field standout at Tennessee; he threw the shot put and the discus and he and wife Robin are both Tennessee graduates. A.J.’s father also introduced her to golf, in an attempt to humor a fussy toddler. A.J. said her father would take her to a local Tampa course to supply her with french fries and daddy-daughter time while he hit golf balls.
“Eventually I just grew into picking up a club and I think I played my first tournament when I was five and a half -- six holes from the middle of the fairway,” A.J. said.
Once Anna arrived, she followed in her sister’s footsteps. All the way to Knoxville.
“Both of my parents went there and I never even considered going to Florida,” Anna said. “It was just like, ‘that’s the enemy.’ It just worked out that she was recruited and ended up going there. In the long run I’m glad that we ended up at the same school. It made things a lot easier on me and I think it made it easier on our parents to only have to wear one color.”
The Newell sisters are cool with being at the same school. They’ve done it since their parents decided to home-school them to combat rising private-school costs following A.J.’s seventh-grade year. Both, however, played golf for Northside Christian in St. Petersburg. And when Tennessee recruiters came calling, A.J. made her own decision, saying her parents didn’t sway her.
“I honestly thought it was too way far from home and it does get cold up there, but the face that we have some family friends [there] does make it a little bit easier,” she said. “Once you get to Tennessee and you see the atmosphere that surrounds the athletic department, it was hard to say no. I’m just lucky that we ended up going to the same school. Even though it’s been only year, it’s been the best year for me by far.”
A member of the All-SEC Community Service team, A.J. has put up solid career numbers despite a back injury that nearly wiped out her spring season as a junior in 2013-2014. Anna is a member of the All-SEC Freshman team and a candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year.
She’s also is one of the few players in this year’s finals to have played the Concession course, doing so during a 2012 American Junior Golf Association tournament.
“I played four rounds and a practice round and I’m glad that I had that opportunity,” Anna said. “I remember them telling me right after I got done with the fourth round, ‘oh, nationals will be here freshman year.’ I was like, ‘oh gosh.’ This is course is very challenging, but I’m glad to come back and compare what I was back then to what I am now. My game has grown a lot since then and I’m really excited to test myself this week.”
That cache of knowledge was crucial during Tennessee’s practices leading into this week. The Newell sisters also contributed local climate tips.
“A lot of it’s been asking us how do we handle the heat?” A.J. said. “What’s the course like? Cause the heat’s just different when you get down to Florida. In Tennessee, it does get hot but it’s still chilly in the morning So a lot has been asking how to play the course, what’s the best way to handle the heat?”
Once the NCAA championships end next Wednesday, A.J. and Anna will play in a U.S. Women’s Open qualifying tournament the following weekend. They leave for a cruise on May 31. By that time A.J. will have turned pro. She plans to work on developing her game the next two years, beginning with LPGA qualifying school later this year.
“Our parents just did a really great job of keeping it fun and we were never too serious,” Anna said of their golf legacy. “It was just about having fun. We’ve just been lucky to have the parents that we have.”