by Andrew Kenney
photographs by Nick Pironio
It’s silent on the fourth hole of MacGregor Downs in Cary. No wind, no birds, no golfers in sight – except Emilia Migliaccio.
The 14-year-old slips a pink fuzzy cover off the head of her club and lopes to the tee. She peers through a monocular rangefinder down the fairway, which drops for perhaps a hundred yards to a knobby knoll, punctured by the flag.
It’s a straight shot, but the green seems like such an unforgiving target, with the land falling off behind it and a sand trap wrapping around its right side.
Migliaccio’s up to the task. Her tournament wins qualify her as the best young female golfer in the state, and her coaches predict she may soon be one of the best young golfers in the country.
It’s a new mantle, one she’s just getting used to, the result of hard work. “I was working so hard the year before – I was struggling quite a bit,” she says (though she had a stellar year). “This year, everything just came together.”
She sets her ball and takes up position, cycling through a few half-swings and slow swings, looking from the tee to the distant flag a few times. Her mother watches, bundled up and quiet, having offered only a few gently prodding questions during this late-day practice.
Then Migliaccio brings the club way back, up above her right shoulder, and swings it down in a near-complete orbit, the club’s head smacking the ball and continuing on through until it’s up above her shoulders on the other side.
The ball flies up on a diagonal and above the tree line to disappear into a thinly clouded sky. Migliaccio peers after it, pink hat shading her lightly freckled, barely made-up face.
Now a freshman at Athens Drive High School, Migliaccio already has taken the 2013 state 4-A championship, high school’s top division. Last month, the Carolinas Golf Association named Emilia Migliaccio one of its two 2013 N.C. Junior Players of the Year, alongside Will Blalock of Gastonia, citing her top 10 finishes in 16 of her 18 tournaments, including five wins and four second-place finishes.
But Migliaccio’s talent wasn’t always obvious. Chase Duncan, one of her coaches, says he knew she was good, but didn’t see her as a star player for months after he took her on for private lessons a couple years ago.
“No, no, I didn’t,” says Duncan, 29, a former N.C. State University golfer. “She did not stand out to me as a prodigy or anything. Nothing stood out,” except that “she was a great kid. She had really good guidance from her mom. She paid attention, she listened well.”
Migliaccio and her younger sister started young. Both got their first clubs about eight years ago, when they were 6 and 4 years old, respectively.
That wasn’t unusual in their family, which is practically founded on golf. The girls’ mother, Ulrika Migliaccio, left Sweden, where she was on the national team, to play college golf in Arizona. Golf is the default family activity when Emilia’s grandparents and uncles visit. Her father has made a hobby of it, too.
Early on, Ulrika Migliaccio thought she saw something in her elder daughter’s swing.
“Even in her early life, she hit it far and just had that pop to the ball,” Ulrika recalls. “You either have it or you don’t. This game, if you don’t love it, it’s not for you.”
But Emilia Migliaccio wasn’t herded into the sport, her family says. Instead, she played steadily and diligently, fitting in rounds and events between soccer practices.
By the time she was wrapping up middle school, she faced a choice between the two sports. And golf, with its frustrating, addicting allure, had taken root.
“I just chose golf, because of so many reasons,” she says. “It’s the individual sport, and you’re the best because you score well.”
That decision was the beginning of a tremendous and unexpected ascent. Soon she was hitting record scores. Winning huge events. Catapulting through the ranks.
But when Chase Duncan took her on, that was all in the future. What he saw wasn’t necessarily great promise but a flaw he wanted to fix: Her swing had a drift of about 12 degrees to the right.
They practiced for hours each week, rehearsing swings in slow motion, filming her in action and then talking about the ball’s flight. The student learned to analyze herself.
The coach was learning about his student, too. It wasn’t until last summer that Duncan realized Migliaccio’s caliber. He was unfamiliar with junior girls’ golf, and hadn’t considered her scores remarkable – until he checked out the competition.
“I saw, this girl – she’s 13, and she just beat 20 girls that are getting scholarships to play Division I golf,” he said. And as she entered more events, he said, Emilia “kept winning and winning and winning and winning.”
The ball is gone so long I think I’ve lost it. I barely catch its white gleam as it drops past the horizon, toward the green – and straight into the sand trap.
Migliaccio and her mother confer for a second. This part is hardest for many players: the deviation from perfection. Golfers can find themselves racked by the cruel, elusive temptation of the ideal line, and the knowledge that their own bodies and minds often are the obstacles.
“Mathematically, it’s simple,” Duncan says of the game’s physics. “Except when you have a human, susceptible to error, who has fears: Don’t hit the trap, the rough … it’s difficult to play to your best, when, mentally, you’re almost too invested in your result,” Duncan says.
Nevertheless, Migliaccio’s almost immune to that pressure, he says. She can leave the game on the course and go enjoy a Taylor Swift concert. (“We’re best friends. We Skype,” she jokes.)
Still, the young golfer hit a low point in October, halfway through a state championship round at Pinehurst. Shots weren’t falling. Emilia trailed.
“Her front nine was pretty bad, for her,” says Dave Snyder, coach of her high school team, a coffee-fueled man whose nickname is “The Bulldog.”
“As a coach, I had to go out and tell her: Relax, calm down. Once she did that she just burned it up, smoked the back nine and won.”
Maybe that lesson sunk in. Back on the MacGregor course, Migliaccio looks put-off after the ball hits the bunker – but then she returns to the tee to retrace the club’s path.
“I felt my angle was wrong there,” she says. “I felt in my swing I didn’t finish my follow-through. It’s OK. It happens.”
A few minutes later, down in the sand trap, she again runs her routine. She can’t even see the hole – she’s aiming at the flag when she pops the ball up.
A little trail of dust follows it out of the bunker, and it flies a few yards before landing gently just feet from the flag, barely even rolling.
Now she’s smiling again. A gentle putt, and she has made par. She’s happy with that one, she says. She’ll keep this routine up year-round, honing in on a better and better score. With goals like hers, it’s a necessity.
“I definitely want to play golf professionally,” she says. “I plan to work a little harder each day to reach my goal. The only thing I can do is keep grinding every day and strive to reach my full potential.”