“Golf is a fickle game,” Roy Antley said before the start of the last regular season tournament on September 17. The Flathead High School golf coach peered through the smoky haze over the Buffalo Hill golf course, watching for his players to show up. “I have good expectations that we can get both teams to state and definitely some individuals — Marcella for one.”
Marcella Mercer, a senior at Flathead, is a co-favorite, if not the outright favorite, to win the state title this year. She hasn’t lost a high school tournament this season, and in 2019 she tied for second place. Last year’s champion, Carrie Carpenter, and the co-second place finisher, Cooper Knarr, both graduated, leaving a roughly 11,000-yard, sand-trap filled, but direct path to the podium.
“I’m feeling really good about the season,” Mercer said. “I played in a lot of tournaments over the summer and put up some really good scores, and started off the high school season strong — I’m looking forward to ending it the same way.”
When Mercer first started golfing at age 11, she only used one club.
“I could hit the ball quite a long ways compared to a lot of girls, or people in general,” Mercer said. “I never hit any other club besides driver when I was starting, because I loved hitting it far and I like showing off.”
Mercer readily admits that just going to the range with a driver might not be the best way to develop a rounded golf game, but “I just love drivers.”
The driving range hooked Mercer on golfing to begin, but it was her first high school tournament that hooked her into the competitive side.
“The challenge of setting up each shot completely different is unlike any other sport you can play,” Mercer said. “I love the game and I’m naturally competitive.”
As a freshman, Mercer competed against older girls across the state. Watching seniors statewide progress in their game ignited her own desire to improve.
Mercer grew to be a top competitor, finishing eighth in the state tournament as a freshman. A year later she was fifth. Then came the tie for second.
Antley is quick to point out how improved Mercer is this year compared to last year.
“She’s become a more consistent ball striker, and she can shape it left or right when she needs to,” Antley said. “And while in her mind, she’s not a good putter, she’s improved a lot in the last four years. There’s really no holes in her game now.”
Some of the credit for her improvement can be given to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down in-person schooling in the spring. Without the obligation to sit in a classroom, Mercer was able to go out and play every single day, for long periods of time and attend a few extra tournaments that normally conflicted with school.
“I could get more golf in in general,” Mercer said. “People complain about having school canceled and sports canceled, but for me it worked out great.”
Parts of her game that weren’t as strong at the start of the spring, like her short game, got months of extra focus.
“I really put a lot of time into working on them and you can see it in my scores,” Mercer said. “Recently I’ve been making so many putts and it’s super exciting and motivating when you can see all the work turn into results at a tournament.”
The ongoing pandemic has affected how the game is played at the high school level this fall. Tournaments were downsized to single-day competitions, with the exception of the post season. Golfers aren’t allowed to warm up on the course, which has led to some rough early holes all around.
“The majority of my bogeys this year have been on the first three or four holes,” Mercer said. “But once I get warmed up the momentum gets going pretty quickly.”
Due to the expansion of Class AA in recent years, the Montana High School Association added a divisional round to the post season. Instead of every school sending teams to state, only the top four schools from the east and west will advance, along with the top 10 individuals on non-qualified teams.
Mercer will be leading a talented Flathead girls squad into the divisional tournament this weekend with a good chance of qualifying the entire team to the state tournament in Missoula, Oct. 1-2.
Backing up Mercer up on the greens will be all-state finisher Jillian Wynne, who finished second at the Kalispell Invitational last week. Starting on Sept. 24, the Bravettes will be in Butte for divisionals, a much anticipated two-day competition.
“I’m ready for the two-day tournaments,” said Mercer. “If you don’t have an amazing first day, you have another chance to battle back and play better.”
A perfect example of Mercer battling back was her performance over the summer at the Montana State Junior Golf Championship in June.
At the Polson Bay course, Mercer had a rough first day, finishing the first round in eighth, a full 10 strokes back from the leader. Rather than let it faze her, she took the struggle in stride, ready to make up the points on the second day.
On the ninth hole, Mercer shot her first ever hole in one, and overall fired a tournament best 70 on the second day, moving up seven spots to finish second.
Mercer keeps a busy travel schedule with tournaments during the spring and summer. Even during the short, six-week high school season, Mercer is constantly on the road heading to tournaments with national-caliber competitors.
“At these big junior tournaments the courses are much longer, and taking into account where you are in elevation can affect how far you hit the ball so the courses are challenging,” Mercer said. “There’s a completely different level of competition at these tournaments. Some of these players, they don’t go to school, they have six different coaches and that’s a completely different setting than what we have here.”
In a recent tournament in Big Sky, Mercer eked out a 14th place finish against some of the best players in the West.
“It’s their job and they take it seriously,” Mercer said. “It’s super fun to play with them and watch their shots and how they handle different situations.”
Next year, Mercer will be able to dedicate more time to the game. In Montana, the high school golf season only spans six weeks, and the weather only allows for six to seven months of good enough weather to be on the greens. When Mercer was looking into schools, she made it a priority to find a school that either had weather that allowed for year round outdoor play or nice indoor facilities.
“I’m looking forward to see how far I can grow,” Mercer said. “Having a qualified coach from these colleges that can teach you literally every day is exciting.”
Mercer is focusing on a few small Division III colleges eschewing potential athletic scholarships in favor of a high quality academic setting, as well as a strong golf program. Four schools, spanning both coasts, have risen to the top of her list, and she hopes to make a final decision within the month.
With four more years of the fickle game assured, it’s easy to ask the follow up question: what will be next after that?
“I don’t know how much I can grow or how much I can do with the sport, so who knows, only time will tell,” Mercer said. “But I do just love the game.”