The UTEP women’s golf team is coming off one of the best seasons in school history in 2018-19.
If the Miners are going to approach or even exceed that level of excellence during the 2019-20 campaign, Valeria Mendizabal will be at the heart of the success.
A junior from Guatemala City, Guatemala, Mendizabal is UTEP’s top returnee after posting a 73.4 scoring average a year ago. She was the team co-MVP, placing in the top-10 at three tournaments.
As Mendizabal’s game grew in leaps and bounds last season, the Miners followed her lead and won four tournaments for the first time in school history. They posted three consecutive tournament victories during the fall season, quite an amazing achievement.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Mendizabal said. “It all came together. We had five players who were playing well at the same time, which is very hard to do.”
Along with her teammates, Mendizabal played her best golf during the fall as she tied for second place at the Wyoming Cowgirl Desert Intercollegiate and tied for third place at the Aggie Invitational in Las Cruces. Overall, she dropped her scoring average from 75.6 the previous year. Her coach at UTEP, Jere Pelletier, played a major role in her gaining comfort and confidence.
“When I first came to UTEP, I already knew how to play but coming from Guatemala, I was used to beating two or three girls that didn’t play that well,” she said. “So when I got here and played in my first tournament, I realized how much competition there was. It’s like playing against 100 girls who can break par. Coach has helped me to understand that if you want to be a really good player, you have to work hard on your game. And even if the results don’t come fast, you have to be certain that they will if you keep working hard.”
Mendizabal started playing golf when she was about seven years of age.
“My dad, my brothers and my sister would go to the golf course every Sunday and play nine holes,” she said. “At first I didn’t really think I was going to be playing for so long, but then I kind of fell in love with the sport and kept practicing and improving.”
When she was 15, Mendizabal realized she had a chance to parlay golf into a college scholarship if she kept getting better. Meanwhile, she continued to hone her skills in tournament competition.
“I played in pretty big tournaments for Guatemala since it’s a small country,” she said. “I played the Pan Am Games, and the Central American and Caribbean games. I played the World Amateur Team Championship two times, and some other big tournaments. It’s pretty cool to represent Guatemala. It’s an honor and I’m proud to do it.”
One of the highlights of her young career was playing alongside native countryman José Toledo.
“He plays on PGA Tour Latin America and he is the only pro golfer right now from Guatemala,” she said. “We played together in the Pan Am Games. When I was a kid, he was my idol. I looked up to him and being able to be on the same team as him was like a dream come true.”
How does a girl from Guatemala end up at UTEP?
“A friend of mine went to school here and put me in contact with coach Jere,” she said. “I came to visit and I talked to coach. I really liked the campus and I really got along with coach. Those are the main reasons I’m here.”
Now she’s about to begin her third season with the Miners, as they’ll tee off the 2019-20 season at the MSU/Payne Stewart Memorial tournament on Monday in Springfield, Mo.
With all of the team’s accomplishments last season, one goal went unfulfilled, and that was to win Conference USA.
“I think we need everyone to shoot under par. That’s what it’s going to take to win conference,” she said. “We were doing that in the fall [last year], but we didn’t play as well in the spring. We have good players, we know how to play and coach helps us with our course management. So I don’t see why we can’t do it [in 2020].”
Some of golf’s all-time greats have said that the sport is at least 80 percent mental. The mental component of her game is something that Mendizabal continues to work on.
“I already have what it takes to play under par and score well but last year, I had two chances to win individual tournaments and at the end I got nervous and couldn’t finish,” she said. “I really learned from those tournaments and I think the next time I’m in that position, I’ll be able to manage it better and hopefully win. When you work so hard for something and you’re so close to getting it and you don’t, it’s hard to recover. But I just need to get better with my mental game and get stronger.”
Mendizabal is a Finance major at UTEP. She has flourished in the classroom, earning a Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Medal (minimum 3.75 grade point average) in each of the last two years.
She’s not sure what the future holds past UTEP, although she’d love to play professionally some day down the road.
“It’s going to depend a lot on my senior year,” she said. “I love golf obviously, but there’s a lot of competition out there. If I don’t play pro golf, I think I’ll be a graduate assistant for two years and get my masters, and then go to work.”
Mendizabal’s work ethic, in all likelihood, will make her a success at anything she chooses to do. She admitted she doesn’t have much time for hobbies.
“I’m always playing golf,” she said. “But if I have time, I like to watch a movie and relax for a bit, because we have a pretty busy life. But most of the time, I’m on the golf course, just trying to get better.”
The UTEP Women’s Golf fall season is set to get underway Monday when the Miners travel to Springfield, Missouri, for the MSU/Payne Stewart Memorial.
The 54-hole event is hosted by the Missouri State Bears and is made up of a 12-team field for the two-day event. The tournament will feature a shotgun start at 7:30 a.m. MT on Monday and Tuesday. The MSU/Payne Stewart Memorial will be held at the 71-par, 5,981-yard course at Twin Oaks Country Club in Springfield.
“We are excited to get the season started at Missouri State,” head coach Jere Pelletier said. “The girls have worked hard over the summer and they are looking forward to putting their games to the test starting Monday.”
Monday’s action will feature 36 holes, while the final round of 18 holes is slated for Tuesday morning.
In addition to the Bears, the rest of the field includes Arkansas State, Austin Peay, Creighton, Drury, McNeese State, Oklahoma City, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, UMKC and Wichita State.
The MSU/Payne Stewart Memorial is named in honor of the Springfield native and PGA Tour standout who perished in a plane crash in 1999.
Miner fans can follow along with all the action with live scoring available on GolfStat.com.
For complete coverage of UTEP Women’s Golf, be sure to follow the Miners on social media at @UTEPwgolf (Twitter) and @UTEPwomensgolf (Instagram) or visit the official home of UTEP Athletics at UTEPMiners.com.