With 5 wins already, Fassi a star for Arkansas golf

By: Matt Jones
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Arkansas junior Maria Fassi has five wins this season, the program's most since Stacy Lewis won five en route to a national championship in 2007.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas junior Maria Fassi has five wins this season, the program's most since Stacy Lewis won five en route to a national championship in 2007.

— Maria Fassi remembers flying into Northwest Arkansas for the first time.

She was 13 and on her way to play the American Junior Golf Association’s Stacy Lewis Open at the Lost Springs course in Rogers. As she looked below the airplane wing from her window seat she was unimpressed with the cattle and chicken houses and relative ruralness of the region.

“There is no way I would ever come to school here,” she told her mother. “There’s nothing.”

Her mother, Fabiana, replied, “It’s OK. Just play the tournament and go on your visit. You don’t have to go here.”

But as the week progressed, Fassi began to warm to the area. She took a recruiting visit - yes, at 13 - to Blessings Country Club, the Razorbacks’ home course in Johnson. As she turned in the entrance to the course off Arkansas Highway 112 she told her mother, “I might reconsider.”

Even more than the Blessings’ lush greens or Arkansas’ jaw-dropping indoor golf facility, Fassi was drawn to the people.

Fassi grew up in Mexico, where the Razorbacks had developed some recruiting inroads under head coach Shauna Estes-Taylor. Gaby Lopez and Regina Plasencia — both All-SEC performers — were Mexicans who preceded Fassi at Arkansas. Lopez was a Fassi family friend from the same area about an hour’s drive from Mexico City.

Fassi felt something in Fayetteville that she didn’t feel in her later recruiting visits.

“When I came here, it felt like I belonged at Arkansas,” Fassi said. “A year later, Shauna offered and I didn’t want to keep wasting my time looking at other schools.”

That family atmosphere was never more evident than last September when the Razorbacks played at the Mason Rudolph Classic on the Legends Club course near Nashville, Tenn. Prior to her second round at the 54-hole event, Fassi received a phone call from her mother with news that was not unexpected, but devastating nonetheless.

Her grandfather, Juan Fassi, had died after a lengthy illness. Fassi, who had shot 65 in Round 1, struggled a little with a 71 on the day she learned the news.

“It was really hard for me to focus on that second round,” Fassi said. “But the girls and Shauna did a good job of having my back and understanding what I was going through.”

Before the final round, Estes-Taylor passed around new ball markers to her players with the initials of Fassi’s late grandfather. That afternoon. Fassi turned in her best performance as a collegiate, shooting a 64 — the second-best score in school history — that tied her for first overall at the event.

Arkansas' team also won there with a 41 under score that is tied for the lowest in recorded NCAA history. It was the first of five team wins this year for the Razorbacks, who are ranked No. 3 nationally behind UCLA and Alabama.

“I knew my dad was really sad, so all I was thinking about was playing well to give him something to smile about,” Fassi said. “I started off really strong but in the middle of the round, it started to get complicated; I was saving pars and really having to fight to score. Toward the end, I chipped in from like 100 yards for eagle and birdied 17 and 18. It was just an amazing feeling. It almost felt like my grandpa was there with me the whole time, giving me the strength I needed to finish the way I did.”

Estes-Taylor equated Fassi’s win that weekend to the win Stacy Lewis — the former Arkansas great — had a couple of weeks earlier on the LPGA Tour after a hurricane and subsequent floods wrecked her hometown of Houston.

“I think when you have a purpose bigger than winning and you’re playing for something, you tend to play with a lot of heart and a lot of passion,” Estes-Taylor said.

That isn't the only comparison between Fassi and Lewis. Fassi's five individual wins this year are the most since Lewis won five, including the NCAA championship, in 2007.

In a year that already has seen four Arkansas women - Lexi Jacobus, Taliyah Brooks, Payton Chadwick and Brooke Schultz - win individual NCAA titles, Fassi figures to challenge for another.

She is ranked the No. 4 individual nationally by Golfweek and won again this week when she shot 14 under to win the Evans-Derby Experience in Auburn, Ala.

Fassi’s technique hasn’t changed a whole lot since last year, Estes-Taylor said, although she has fine-tuned some areas, such as her wedge play and mid-irons.

Where Fassi has grown most is in her mental approach. She has been under par in 16 of 21 rounds this year.

“There has been a calm, a sense of preparedness,” Estes-Taylor said. “When you have that, you execute better under pressure.”

The SEC meet in Birmingham, Ala., and NCAA meet in Stillwater, Okla., will be competed at longer courses, which should benefit Fassi, whose average drives are between 285 and 290 yards.

“She’s very strong and creates a lot of speed,” Estes-Taylor said. “In our sport, speed equals distance. She is probably the longest player in women’s college golf.”

This year’s championship courses are similar to Blessings, where Arkansas will host the NCAA meet in 2019. Fassi could go pro after this season, but the allure of winning a title on her home course has her planning to return as a senior.

“I’m really excited about us hosting nationals,” Fassi said. “There is no better way for me to say goodbye to Arkansas.”

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