June 16, 2015
When it comes to student-athletes at Notre Dame, three-time Academic All-America golfer Ashley Armstrong is on par with the most exceptional. Both on the course and off, the Flossmoor, Illinois, native revealed a quality of character and commitment that set her apart throughout her four years with the Fighting Irish, culminating in her graduation last month from Notre Dame’s College of Engineering with a 3.90 cumulative grade-point average.
Armstrong is the 11th student-athlete (and first Fighting Irish women’s golfer) in Notre Dame’s 128-year athletics history to be a three-time Academic All-America selection, and the first three-time honoree since women’s soccer goalkeeper Erika Bohn from 2003-05.
Yet, when it comes to Armstrong, the ABCs of her success are best presented in her own words.
Armstrong started playing golf when she was about eight years old.
“My parents signed me up for junior golf at the country club, they really wanted me to play,” she recalls. “We played with tennis balls [instead of golf balls]. None of my friends played at the time and I just wasn’t really into it. It was jokes to me back then.”
Part of the reason for her nonchalance was her involvement in track, cross country, basketball, volleyball, swimming and soccer. She had aspirations of playing soccer for Notre Dame one day. Golf came as a surprise.
“I did take lessons, because I hated not being good at something I was doing. As time went on and I wasn’t growing very tall, I had to give up basketball and volleyball.
“My first real tournament, we played from cones in the fairway instead of the tee box because we were so little and couldn’t hit very far. I specifically remember my first tee shot went about two feet: I completely topped it, and I just started crying. I guess I had nowhere to go but up from there!”
When she started playing travel tournaments, “I met all these really neat people, got to go to restaurants, see new areas, and I realized this was really an incredible sport. By the end of middle school and into high school I narrowed to just golf and soccer, and eventually chose golf exclusively. I think it’s been a good choice.”
Being a student-athlete at Notre Dame often meant saying no to other pursuits. In high school, Armstrong had planned to study business and economics, but a fabulous experience in an advanced placement physics course during her senior year inspired a significant interest in mechanical engineering.
“I looked at a lot of different colleges,” Armstrong shares. “I’ve always been a nerd who liked math and science. Everywhere I visited, they told me I’d have to choose either golf or engineering, that I couldn’t do both. Notre Dame was the only place that supported what I really wanted to do, and didn’t try to discourage me. It made my choice really easy.”
Collegiate golf was different from other sports in that it required a significant amount of travel time. On a tournament week, the team leaves campus Wednesday afternoon or evening, spends Thursday and Friday learning the course and practicing, playing Saturday and Sunday and arriving back to school around 2 or 3 a.m. Monday. They play four road tournaments in the fall and, depending on how far the team goes in the postseason, six or seven weeks away from campus in the spring.
“The schedule is grueling, and it’s very demanding on the girls’ time,” acknowledges Notre Dame head coach Susan Holt. “Ashley did an outstanding job of managing her time. If you look at what she was able to achieve academically in the College of Engineering and maintain the GPA that she did, nothing was out of balance. Nothing suffered or was sacrificed. She played in every single tournament and she worked to get better on the course and off, every single day.”
“The biggest thing that helped me academically was working ahead,” explains Armstrong. “Even if assignments were due after a tournament, I tried to get them done before we left so it wasn’t hanging over my head while I was playing.
“It was really hard to do a lot of engineering projects or assignments if you’re not on campus because a lot of it was group work and you needed help from other students or professors, so another really important thing was reaching out to my professors early in the semester. It helped them understand that while I was gone so much, I was also going to be the first to get my work turned in. Golf is a great mental break and it was a way for me to relieve the stress of school.
“Coach (Holt) always said that when we came through the gate at Warren (Golf Course), we needed to flip the switch: golf becomes the sole focus, whereas outside the gate we were school-focused. Don’t bring one to bear on the other. Give each thing 100 percent while you’re in the moment, and then do the next thing.”
“My dad particularly — he’s a lawyer — has been my model. He is very disciplined, very organized; he showed so much passion for whatever he was doing and did whatever needed to be done without getting distracted. Growing up watching him, I’ve adopted his standards.
“It requires a lot of work but once you find something you’re passionate about, it should follow that you do whatever it takes in order to be your best at it. You’re not going to work hard at something you don’t really want to do. If you’re struggling to get things done then maybe you’re not doing what you love. I found that golf and engineering are two things I really enjoy and I’m willing to put the work in to be excellent at both.”
“I’m a Nut-Butter fanatic,” she confesses. “There are Nut-Butter jars all over my house.
“I love to cook: it’s another huge stress reliever for me. Living off-campus and having access to a kitchen was great. I created my own recipes and really looked for ways to eat healthy and nutritious meals. It’s become a whole hobby for me.”
“Even though I’m not great at it, I really like to dance,” she says with a grin. “There was a rule in my car, whenever I picked up my teammates or other friends, we have to car-dance. We looked like buffoons, cranking EDM, rap, pop, hip-hop… it was loud and we had a blast.”
“My favorite class was biomechanical orthopedics that I took last spring,” Armstrong noted with a wide smile. “It pointed me in the direction that I’m taking for grad school, how mechanical engineering can be used to help people. I’ve also done research with a professor in conjunction with DePuy Orthopedics, in applying my engineering skills to biomechanical manufacturing. It’s been cool to get industry experience, and have that to look toward after graduate school.”
Armstrong has been accepted to a Ph.D. engineering program at the University of Illinois, with dual concentrations in controls and biomechanics.
“It’s an outstanding school with tremendous resources,” she shares. “I’m looking forward to a change in academic setting. Notre Dame is obviously an excellent school for graduate engineering but I think it was best for me to have a new experience. My professors here advised me that I would gain more from going somewhere else for grad school, that making new connections, gaining new insights and perspectives would serve me well.”
“My biggest inspiration is my little sister,” Armstrong states. “I’ll send her 30 texts in a row and she always knows what to say to help me get through whatever is going on. I’ve helped her in lots of ways too, and we have a very close bond. She motivates me and inspires me to be the best that I can.
“One of the best things about the sport of golf is that I was able to spend a lot of quality time with my mom and dad and sister traveling all around the country with leagues; our family vacations were for golf tournaments. I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.
“Winning the state championship in high school was one of the best moments of my life and I got to share that with my next-door neighbor who was also my teammate and best friend, and we’re still very close friends today.
“My mom has been to every golf tournament I’ve ever played in,” she declares proudly. “If there were soccer moms in golf, she’d be it. She loves walking the courses and supporting me and being there for every minute. It’s going to be a hard transition for her [once I’m finished with competitive golf] but I wouldn’t be where I am today without all that she’s done for me and given to me.
“I missed out on a lot of social activities [at Notre Dame], like football games and some activities with my classmates or girls from my dorm, but having the relationship and close bond with my teammates was something so much more valuable. Golf requires a lot but we’re also given a lot: we went to Ireland, we got to play Augusta National, we spent every spring break in Arizona. What I was able to share and build with my golf teammates more than made up for those things I didn’t get to do: no one will be able to take those memories from me. I will be friends with these girls for the rest of my life.”
By its very definition, the term “student-athlete” involves two parts and Armstrong filled both sides of the equation with aplomb.
Armstrong completed her Notre Dame career with a 74.98 stroke average, the third-lowest all-time mark in the program’s 27-year history. She carded a career-low 74.10 season stroke average (fourth in the school’s record book) in 2014-15 and posted four top-10 finishes while tying for team-high honors with seven rounds under par, including a team-best four rounds in the 60s.
A three-time medalist during her career, Armstrong won the BIG EAST Championship as a freshman in 2012 and then was victorious in back-to-back tournaments during the spring of her sophomore year in 2013 with wins at the Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate and the Briar’s Creek Invitational. She was recognized in spring of 2013 as Golfweek’s Women’s National Player of the Week (March 25-31) and the BIG EAST Women’s Golf Player of the Week (March 17-23). In addition, Armstrong was selected to the All-BIG EAST Team for the second straight season after finishing fifth at the conference tournament. Armstrong led her team to the 2013 BIG EAST crown, following a runner-up finish in 2012. In each of her four seasons at Notre Dame, she and her Fighting Irish teammates earned a berth into the NCAA regional, hosting the event in 2015 at the Warren Golf Course.
In addition, the two-time team captain received an ACC Postgraduate Scholarship and Notre Dame’s Byron V. Kanaley Award (the University’s most prestigious honor awarded to a graduating student-athlete) in 2015, the first women’s golfer to receive the ACC scholarship and the second Kanaley award winner in program history. She was named to the ACC All-Academic Team and the Women’s Golf Coaches Association Scholar All-America Team as a junior.
“My sister is an undergrad at Illinois so we’ll be living together, which is really exciting. I bought a house so I’m actually a homeowner and about to start having to pay a mortgage: hello, real world!” she laughs.
“We’re going to fix the house up and then sell it when we graduate. I haven’t done a lot in terms of home improvement, but I did help out with the student-athlete Habitat build, so if I need to build us a front porch I can probably do that pretty well.”
Probably it will all work out perfectly.
As a junior in high school, Armstrong competed in a tournament hosted at Notre Dame, which functioned as her first unofficial visit as a prospective student-athlete. It was also her first tournament win and Holt extended a offer at that point to join the Fighting Irish women’s golf program.
When Armstrong returned home, she realized she had turned in the wrong scorecard, an oversight which she knew would result in automatic disqualification.
“In moments like that, there’s a split-second where you think, `Oh, no one will know,’ and then you realize, `I have to turn myself in, there’s no other option.’ I knew I wouldn’t have been able to sleep, or talk about my win, or go on and do anything, unless I told on myself. I looked up the number of the tournament headquarters and called them myself.
“Right then and there it seemed like such a huge deal, it was my first major tournament win, but now looking back five years later, it’s like, `Ashley, that was a silly tournament in the grand scheme of things,’ and I know I made the right decision in turning myself in. Back then it was hard: I had done an interview on television, accepted my trophy, made a speech, all the stuff I had always wanted to do for winning a tournament.
“Two weeks before that, I lost a tournament in a sudden-death playoff with the same girl who ended up taking the trophy when I disqualified myself for the Notre Dame tournament. I was upset for a while but I have never signed the wrong scorecard since. I double-check and triple-check my card in the scoring tent every single time, so… lesson well-learned.”
Armstrong’s second phone call that day was to Holt, explaining what had happened and that she would understand if her scholarship and invitation to play for Notre Dame were rescinded.
“I thought she was crazy,” Holt said. “She was exactly the kind of person we wanted to come play for us. That was the defining moment of Ashley for me, and I knew right then and there that she was going to do great things as a part of our program. I never regretted the decision to bring her here.”
The 19th Hole
You’re not likely to find Armstrong loafing around the clubhouse, resting on her laurels. She still plans to continue playing golf after graduation, and her new advisors and lab partners at Illinois have already expressed a desire to join her on the course.
She is sure to leave a legacy behind her, though, at Notre Dame.
“I hope that I’ve left the impression that, with a lot of dedication and hard work, you can achieve incredible things and nothing is impossible. Notre Dame is willing to help student-athletes: if you match the University’s significant resources with your own consistent work ethic, you can successfully accomplish whatever you set out to do.
“My coaches gave me this incredible opportunity, they put so much trust into a junior in high school and I hope I’ve done them proud. My teammates are amazing for supporting me and accepting me as I am and for being the best friends possible. I could not have asked for anything more from my college experience.”
— by Renee Peggs, special correspondent