Auburn golfers rally for coach, advance to NCAAs

Days after Auburn's longtime golf coach was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the Tigers reached the NCAAs.

Sometimes emotions in sports transcend the sports themselves. It is during those times -- moments when the indomitable human spirit shines -- that we remember why we play the games.

Last week was one of those times.

Women’s college golf doesn’t get a lot of coverage, especially before the NCAA finals, which start next week at the University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens. Most of the regional events designed to whittle down the final field to 24 teams were contested in relative obscurity while the eyes of the golf world focused on Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia at The Players Championship.

But the best story in the game wasn’t found at TPC Sawgrass. In fact, it wasn’t even televised. The story that went beyond the game was found in a quiet corner of Auburn, Ala., where the Lady Tigers -- the home team, ranked No. 42 in the nation -- hoped to defy the odds and advance to the finals, not for themselves, but for their leader.

Earlier in the week, Kim Evans, the 54-year-old head women’s golf coach, received word from doctors at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital that she has ovarian cancer.

The team took the news hard but vowed to rally. Then the rest of the Auburn family stepped in. Student Assistant Coach Danielle Downey took over the team, but she also made homemade chicken soup and delivered it to the ailing Evans, who underwent surgery and was bedridden throughout most of the week.

Former Auburn All American and LPGA Tour player Diana Ramage dropped everything and went to her alma mater to assist Downey however she could.

As news of Evans’ condition trickled out, support poured in.

“Coach Evans has been such an influential person in my life,” former LPGA Tour player and SEC Champion Maru Martinez said on Monday. Martinez was one of the first Venezuelans to compete in Division I women’s golf, a benchmark she said was due to the kindness of her coach.

“She offered me the opportunity to be a part of the Auburn family and I will always be grateful for that,” Martinez said. “As a coach she nurtured us and at the same time she challenged us to be better on and off the golf course. She taught us to always strive for excellence and also to be disciplined and have fun while we were at it. She is an amazing woman who has touched the heart of all her pupils.”

That was evident Saturday when emotions spilled out as Auburn fought to play on. Paraguay’s Diana Fernandez broke down in inconsolable sobs after shooting a final-round 76 and embracing Evans behind the 18th green.

Junior Martz Sanz shot 7-under in the final two rounds to carry the Tigers. When her final birdie putt fell, she gave a huge fist pump and gave a cathartic yell.

The team gathered near the scoreboard and their concerns turned to jubilation as they realized that they had done it. Auburn finished 8th, earning the final spot from the East Regional. They will, indeed, play in Athens in the NCAA Tournament finals.

Then the tears flowed.

Even those who were half-a-world away felt warm, wet pools in their eyes.

“We are all really sad to hear about what's happening but Coach Evans is a true fighter,” Martinez said. “If there is anybody in this world that can come out of this on the right side, it is her.” 

As for Evans, she is walking slowly and carefully in both literal and figurative ways. Her ginger steps and long naps during the regional tournament spoke to her illness. But the smile and hugs that came afterward spoke to her spirit. 

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be able to coach with different priorities,” she said afterward. “With different goals in mind.”