A Foreign Perspective
March 4, 2009
By Larry Watts
Her allegiance is first to Purdue University, at least for the next few months. But senior Maria Hernandez is also known as part of the "Spanish Armada," a small, and growing, group that has become a force in women's collegiate golf.
Together with Arizona State senior Azahara Munoz and USC junior Belen Mozo, Hernandez and her fellow Spanish national team members have already made quite an impression on U.S. soil. All three trained together at Joaquin Blume, a government-run sports academy for Olympians and golfers in Madrid. And now they have added long bomber Carlota Ciganda, a freshman at Arizona State, to the mix.
Munoz is the defending NCAA champion and was runner-up in the U.S. Women's Amateur last fall. Mozo finished third in the three-way playoff for the NCAA title last year and advanced to the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals along with Ciganda. Hernandez, a three-time NCAA qualifier and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, finished her junior campaign with the Boilermakers as the No. 5-ranked player in the nation.
"They are all great players and great people to be around," says Hernandez, who regularly checks in with her countrymen through text messages, Facebook and e-mails. "Carlota is from my home town (Pamplona) and we both have had the same coach (former USC standout Marta Figuera-Dotti)."
Hernandez, her school's first individual Big Ten champion (2008) and two-time winner of the Mary Fossum Award (lowest stroke-average to par in the conference), nearly became a teammate of Mozo's twice during her collegiate career. She first committed to USC before changing her mind to study architecture in Spain. Then after one semester at Purdue, she was ready to pack her bags and head to California.
"(Figuera-Dotti) played for USC many years ago and told me it was a good opportunity and there were a lot of Spanish-speaking people out there," she says. "I liked the facilities a lot and pretty much decided this was it. But at the last minute, I just decided by English wasn't good enough and I really wanted to study architecture."
Other coaches called and were rejected as Hernandez decided to concentrate on tournaments in Europe. But Purdue coach Devon Brouse, who is known to field his own United Nations roster, was persistent.
"I told him I was practicing for the European Championships, but he wouldn't take no for an answer," she says. "He told me to just come out for a few days and give it a try. If I didn't like it, I could always go home."
Considering it was mid-July, Brouse had an easy sale. "I didn't know the place could be like this (snow and ice)," the 22-year-old now says. "I didn't know it could get this cold. Other than the weather, I'm happy to be here now."
But that wasn't her initial feeling during her first semester. Aside from the weather, Hernandez knew little English and felt alone when she wasn't around any of her new teammates or coaches.
"I really didn't talk for the first two months," she says. "I went to class, but I didn't understand what they were saying. I took a lot of math and chemistry because it was mainly working with numbers. If I could tell someone was talking to me by their facial expression, I would just nod my head yes or no."
Majoring in business administration, Hernandez did not have any interpreters other than a member of the men's golf team who knew a little Spanish.
"I just didn't want to approach anyone outside of my teammates because I couldn't understand them," she says. "And if I did understand, I didn't know what the correct response was."
Hernandez admits she started having serious doubts about her decision and was thinking about transferring to USC.
"I knew there were a lot of Spanish speakers out there, so I could talk to people," she says. "It's always easier when you can go to a place and communicate with the people. But if I went there, I might not learn to speak English, so it was better to stay at Purdue in the long run."
And when it comes to different cultures, Hernandez is certainly no stranger to the situation on her team. This year's roster includes players from Thailand, Germany, Canada and India.
"It's been so much fun to learn from each other about our different cultures," she says. "When I first came here, we had a girl (Onan Sattayabanphot) from Thailand. I learned so much about her country that I would now like to go there. The beaches and everything look so nice. But I'm not one who would sit around the beach for very long because I would get bored."
Hernandez admits she was never one to sit around for a long time while growing up. If there was a ball, she played the game, especially soccer.
"I love soccer," she says. "My favorite team is Barcelona and I follow the Spanish League all the time."
The 5-foot-2 Hernandez was quite a player herself, playing forward on her team. "I was little, but I was strong," she says with a laugh. "We won our league title the four years I played and we played for the international championship."
Somehow, she got addicted to the slower-paced game of golf at the age of 12. "I don't know how I ended up there, I wonder myself at times," she says.
Although she has already qualified to play on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, the developmental tour for the LPGA, Hernandez currently has her sights set on leading the Boilermakers to their third Big Ten title in four years.
"For me, the most important thing is to help the team improve each week," she says. "I'm always happy when the team plays well. I'm just trying to take this day by day and not think about my future."
Hernandez doesn't even plan to be on hand when she becomes the first member of her family to receive a degree from a U.S. school. The practice rounds for the NCAA Championships are scheduled for the same time when Purdue students go through the graduation ceremony.
"I really made the right decision to stick it out," she says. "I have met a lot of good people; everyone has always been trying to help me out. Now I hope to do well enough to help Purdue out this year."
Hernandez figures her first FUTURES Tour event will be June 5-7 at the Ladies Titan Tire Challenge in Marion, Iowa. If she finishes high enough in the final rankings, she could earn a spot in the LPGA Qualifying Tournament in December. There is only one Spaniard, Emma Cabrera-Bello, currently among the 121 international players in the LPGA. However, six of the 17 FUTURES events will already have been held by the time Hernandez joins the ranks.
"I don't know, I may give it one or two years," she says. "I'll probably get the experience and return to Spain to play on the European Tour. It will be very hard to make it to the LPGA."
But if she's capable of conducting a full interview in English after four years in West Lafayette, Hernandez is proving no obstacle is impossible to clear.