Joanne Free adapting to key role with Gophers

The sophomore from Scotland is a key piece of the future of the women’s golf team.

Round 1 of the women's ANNIKA Intercollegiate Golf Tournament at the Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo MN, Sept. 16, 2018.  (Photo/Craig Lassig)

Courtesy of Craig Lassig

Round 1 of the women’s ANNIKA Intercollegiate Golf Tournament at the Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo MN, Sept. 16, 2018. (Photo/Craig Lassig)

Nick Jungheim

Joanne Free wasted no time becoming one of the most important players for the women’s golf team. She played in all nine tournaments as a freshman, posting a stroke average of 76.58.  That total was third-best on the team and the fourth-best of all-time among Gophers freshmen.

Now in her sophomore year, the team will rely on Free even more to continue her success and become a top player for the program moving forward.

Free came to Minnesota from Gullane, Scotland, 22 miles east of Edinburgh. It was there she became a standout golfer at Ross High School in nearby Tranent.  

Free pointed to head coach Michele Redman as the main reason she chose to come to Minnesota.  

“Coach Redman was a big factor,” Free said, “I saw her as a former player, and she’s been there and done it all, and that’s where I want to be. I want to follow in her footsteps and maybe even go a bit further.”

Free’s drive to hone her golf game has left an impression on coaches and teammates alike.  Fellow sophomore Kate Lillie pointed out how Free has already demonstrated strong leadership qualities in her relatively short time with the program.

“She does have the goal of furthering her golf career after graduation,” Lillie said. “Her work ethic is unlike any other person’s. She’s always holding everybody accountable and expecting the best out of herself and everyone else.” 

Although Minnesota is young, they have signs of chemistry. Free and Lillie are part of a sophomore class that also includes Grace Kellar and Jessica Lee. Together, those four figures are poised to serve as the program’s nucleus for years to come.

“I think she was definitely able to find a family within the team,” Lillie said. “That helped her a lot when she was missing her family back home.”

International recruiting has become extremely common in college golf, with players coming from all over the world to compete in the NCAA. Currently, the Gophers have three international players: Free, senior Muyu Wu from China and freshman Karen Zhang from British Columbia, Canada. 

“A lot of teams are going all international,” Redman said. “We’re doing a mixture of both which I like. I think from a team chemistry standpoint, that really smart.”

Like many international college golfers, Free returned to her native country over the summer to compete in amateur tournaments. There, she built off the success of her freshman season, winning the Munross Trophy, a 36-hole competition held in May.

“That was a nice reward,” Free said. “Spring went so well and then going back home and winning my tournament, I would definitely say I improved over the summer.”

Transitioning between Europe and Minnesota presents a challenge for Free and other international student athletes. Due to travel, these students have little time to readjust to the United States before the fall season starts.

“It’s a very different playing style than when I’m back home,” Free said. “It sort of takes me a while. … The grasses are different, the weather conditions, the ball flies a lot further. I have to have an adjustment period.”

As such, her sophomore season hasn’t begun the way she would have liked. At the Minnesota Invitational, she shot a 19-over-par, finishing in a tie for 76th place at the competition.

However, after shooting an opening round 78 at the Annika Intercollegiate, she rebounded with scores on 75 and 74 over the next two days.  

“It’s tough practicing straight away and getting the timing,” Free said. “But, I think we did a pretty good job on our own of holding each other accountable as soon as we got back.”