NCAA Champion Not Putting 'Carta' Before the Horse August 5, 2016 | Springfield, Pa. By Lisa D. Mickey

Virginia Elena Carta has brought some Italian flair and golf talent this week to Rolling Green Golf Club. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

Duke University rising sophomore Virginia Elena Carta, of Italy, doesn’t want to look at “the big picture” yet of what it would mean to win the 116th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Rolling Green Golf Club.

As expected, she’s more concerned about winning Friday’s quarterfinal match against Maria Torres.

But if she were to hoist the Robert Cox Trophy, Carta would become only the second player to win both the NCAA Division I individual championship and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the same year. The last player to do that was Vicki Goetze, who defeated Annika Sorenstam, 1 up, in 1992 at Kemper Lakes Golf Club.

If she were to become the Women’s Amateur champion on Sunday, she would become only the second Italian to win the championship, joining Silvia Cavalleri, who won in 1997 with a 5-and-4 victory over Robin Burke at Brae Burn Country Club.

“That would be, of course, amazing, but at the same time, I don’t want to think about that,” said Carta, 19, a 2016 Women’s Golf Coaches Association First Team All-American, All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, and record-setting NCAA champion who won by an eight-stroke margin at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club in May.

While she’s a winner of four women’s amateur tournaments in Europe and has been a member of the Italian national team since 2010, Carta was not at the top of college coaches’ recruiting lists.

In fact, when she tied for sixth at the Annika Invitational in Florida two years ago, very little was known about this energetic Italian who has a handshake like an arm wrestler on double espresso.

“This was one of those times when you go to a tournament to watch people and you see a player you had no awareness of and she goes right to the top of your list,” said Duke women’s golf coach Dan Brooks, whose Blue Devils have won six NCAA titles. “What I saw was a player who was really loaded, powerful and energetic. After only one hole, I was hooked.”

Brooks had no way of knowing the lively Carta would come to Duke and post three top-five finishes, six top 10s, eight top 20s, record a season stroke average of 72.41, and win an individual national title in her first season of college golf.

“How would you predict that somebody’s going to win the national championship as a freshman?” said Brooks. “It’s a little bit of a Cinderella story.”

And when it came to meshing with her Duke teammates last fall, Brooks said the freshman was like a light bulb that cast a glow wherever she went.

“She has a great attitude and a lot of positive energy,” said Brooks. “She’s quick to say thank you and always sees the glass way past half full. You have to love people like that.”

As a junior golfer, when she wanted to improve her balance and hand-eye coordination, Carta attended circus school in Italy, becoming proficient in juggling.

And when she wanted to think about her future in golf, she reached out to fellow countrywomen Giulia Sergas, Diana Luna, Giulia Molinaro, Stefania Croce and Cavalleri. Croce, who played on the LPGA Tour before returning home to Italy, “shared so many experiences” with Carta during casual rounds of golf, she said.

But while Carta has an easy, breezy demeanor, the 2013 European Junior Solheim Cup and 2014 Junior Ryder Cup player also knows how to buckle down when it comes to academics, majoring in environmental sciences and policy.

She was a member of the 2016 All-ACC Academic Team and ACC Honor Roll, but because she missed so much class last year due to college tournaments, she has taken a sociology class and audited a math class this summer. Fortunately, her solid study habits have extended into the summer months.

“I have been studying seven, eight hours a day, so that’s kept me busy,” she said, adding that her planned practice and study times have enabled her to be “more organized” and “schedule better.”

When it’s time to put the books down, Carta says she is ready to practice. She’s also ready to walk and exercise in an effort to trim the 25 pounds she claims she gained in one semester during her freshman year.

“Cookies,” she said, have been her dietary culprit.

Carta’s college spirit and national pride have been on full display this week. There’s no mistaking where Carta’s heart is, and she’s never afraid to show it.

She and her Italian national team coach Roberto Zappa – who is serving as her caddie – have worn the blue colors of Italy’s famed soccer team with Italia logos on their hats and shirts. But she has also brought along her Duke golf bag, balls, shoes and ball marker.

Carta and Zappa work in high-energy fashion in the practice areas, gesturing, laughing and enjoying what they are here to accomplish. But as much fun as they bring to the game, Carta is well aware that it’s been a while since an Italian lifted a USGA trophy, and her coach is here hoping to help her achieve yet another goal.

“I have a lot of confidence with him on my bag,” said Carta, who could join Cavalleri and 2005 U.S. Amateur winner Edoardo Molinari as USGA champions from Italy. “He was the one who put me on the national team when I was 12. We won some international tournaments together.”

The 2016 golf season also offered an opportunity she did not expect. As the NCAA champion, she earned an exemption into the LPGA’s 2016 Marathon Classic, where she made the 36-hole cut and finished 69th.

Shortly after the NCAAs, and anticipating firmer, faster greens in this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur, Carta switched to a lighter putter. But of greater note, she brought to the Philadelphia area a calm confidence she gained by carding four rounds in the 60s to emerge as college golf’s national champion.

“The confidence from nationals is still on my mind because I know that I can actually make some putts,” she said.

Still, Carta doesn’t want to think too far ahead. There’s a lot of golf to play before Sunday’s 36-hole final.

But if she were to allow herself to imagine adding her own name to the Cox Trophy, right below her compatriot Cavalleri, what would it mean to her?

“It would be a huge dream for me to win this tournament ... and I’m going to try to do my best to win,” she said. “Just knowing that past Duke players, such as Virada Nirapathpongporn and Amanda Blumenherst have won makes me really happy.”

Carta admits she has seen the “big pictures they have in our building at the [Duke] golf course with Virada’s and Amanda’s trophies and pictures.”

She also met Blumenherst, the 2008 champion, earlier this year and talked at length with the three-time national player of the year, of whom Brooks says the Italian reminds him.

What happened years ago is history, for sure, but Carta hopes to add a little Italian flair to the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship timeline this weekend. If she is Cinderella, then Cinderella Carta is ready to dance.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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