June 28, 2017

Tiger Women’s Golfer Walton Made History, Advancing to NCAA Finals in Debut Campaign

DRIVE TO SUCCEED: Princeton University women’s golfer Maya Walton displays her driving form. This past spring, Walton wrapped a superb freshman campaign by qualifying for the NCAA Women’s Golf Championships, where she tied for 113th. In so doing, she become the third Tiger and the first Princeton freshman to play in the NCAA finals, joining Mary Moan ’97 in 1997 and Kelly Shon ’14 in 2013. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Maya Walton wasn’t thrilled with how she played last fall as she started her freshman campaign with the Princeton University women’s golf team.

“I played average golf, nothing super special and I had a really good summer season coming into it,” said Walton, a native of Austin, Texas who was ranked 19th nationally in the Class of 2016 by Junior Golf Scoreboard as a high school senior.

“I worked a lot in the offseason just to try to get more out of playing tournaments and feel better about where my game was at.”

That work paid off as Walton helped Princeton win the Ivy League championship by 31 strokes as she placed seventh individually. Walton then made a late charge at the NCAA Regional, tying for fifth to earn a spot in the NCAA Women’s Golf Championships. She ended her spring by finishing tied for 113th in the 132-player field at the NCAAs.

In reflecting on her transition to college golf, Walton said her road to Princeton started with one particular outing in her junior career.

“The Kathy Whitworth Invitational is one of my favorite tournaments; it is on my favorite golf course Mira Vista in Fort Worth,” said Walton, who took up the game at age six tagging along with her father on the golf course.

“The first time I played in that event is what kicked off my college recruiting because I had a really good showing.”

While Walton considered playing golf for college programs from the ACC, Big 10, and Big 12, she realized that the Ivy League was the best fit.

“At the end of the day I decided that I really wanted the student athlete experience Princeton would give instead of just an athlete experience,” said Walton, ranked as high as 51st in the AJGA Polo Golf rankings and won the 2015 PGA Junior Series event at Taconic Golf Club title by seven strokes.

Walton’s experience at Princeton was positive from the start. “I had never really played a lot of team golf before; that was something really fun for me to be out on the course with teammates,” said Walton, who focused on junior events during as a high schooler.

“It also made practice seem a lot more fun to have a group of eight other girls who liked golf as much as you did. I actually grew really close to the sophomores on the team; I consider them to be my best friends. They really helped me and the other freshmen get used to being at school at Princeton, what classes to take, and things like that.”

After a fall which saw Princeton finish 13th in the Red Raider Invitational, fifth in its Princeton Invitational, and second at the Mary Fossum Invitational, the Tigers found their form when the calendar hit 2017. Princeton placed second in the Sacramento State Invitational and first at the Harvard Invitational before rolling to the Ivy League crown.

“If you look at our spring season, you will note that something changed in the offseason because we had an amazing spring season,” said Walton.

“I think part of it was we saw how competitive we could be with other teams and we started looking at ourselves as the best and not just trying to be the best.”

At the Ivy competition in Orlando, Fla., sophomore Amber Wang led the way, taking first individually as Princeton won its first team title since 2005.

“Amber had been playing well all spring season but she hadn’t won yet but she was really close,” said Walton.

“I think she finished runner-up at a few tournaments and she was really able to lead us through Ivies; her confidence really played off on the rest of us.”

Heading into the NCAA Regional at Athens, Ga., the Tigers felt they had nothing to lose.

“I think the whole team mentality going into regionals was just trying to enjoy the experience,” said Walton.

“It is not something that Princeton golf has been able to experience as much as we would like to.”

Walton, for her part, enjoyed her best golf of the spring, carding her lowest scores of the year in the final two rounds at the NCAA regional at 70 and 69. In so doing, she become the third Tiger and the first Princeton freshman to play in the NCAA finals, joining Mary Moan ‘97 in 1997 and Kelly Shon ‘14 in 2013.

“I had no pressure on me whatsoever going into the tournament, none of us were event thinking of qualifying for nationals or anything like that,” said Walton.

“It is just trying to have fun; I think that helped my golf game a lot especially. I was playing really steady golf; I could feel my hard work was paying off but the results didn’t quite show it. I think it just showed at regionals, all of the hard work that I had put into the offseason and then being able to play good golf and not trying to fight for a good score but just letting it happen and that is what happened.”

Despite her late surge, there were some nervous moments as Walton had to sweat things out before her spot in the NCAAs was confirmed as the top three players not on the top six teams got the individual tickets to the finals.

“I finished pretty well my last round but I always had a feel that someone would be out there playing really well or something,” said Walton, who ended up with a two-under 214 in the three-round event to spark Princeton to an 11th place finish in the team standings, the best in program history at the event.

“I would have to wait for the rest of the field to see if I had a spot. I didn’t realize what it meant at the time. My coach [Erika DeSanty] came up to me and said this is something really special. Even one of the other girls I was playing, a girl from UNC, came up to me after we played and said, ‘You have just done something so special,’ and congratulations. It wasn’t until later that I realized not many Princeton individuals had qualified for nationals and then I was really excited.”

Walton was excited to test her skills at the NCAA
championship, which was held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.

“I knew going into it that it was a tough golf course and amazing competition,” said Walton. “I was just looking to have a good time there.”

After a tough opening round score of 88 at the competition, Walton fired rounds of 78 and 79 to finish with a 29-over 245.

“I was never really uncomfortable the whole time,” said Walton. “I had a lot of friends there, some of my teammates and a lot of friends from junior golf. I felt supported the whole time; it was super fun. The first round was the worst weather conditions I have ever played in; the entire field struggled. It was 40 degrees, raining, and incredibly windy the entire day. I wasn’t getting upset about my bad shots or anything like that. I was just trying to enjoy being there.”

For Walton, making it as far as she did this spring was an enjoyable experience.

“I think it really proved that if you work hard for something, you can achieve it,” said Walton, who is going to take a break from tournament play this summer and plans to do more intense training as the fall approaches.

“Even going to a school like Princeton, you can still be a good athlete and can perform well under tough academic circumstances.”

Heading into her sophomore season, Walton believes that the Tigers will perform at an even higher level going forward.

“I am really excited, the team we have next year is going to be great, not only golf-wise but personality-wise,” said Walton.

“The team is going to get along great. I am looking forward to taking the experience I had playing and trying to help my team with it. I think none of us are going to feel pressure going into the season at all. We want to have fun and do our best.”