Fresh Start For Pia Halbig

By Peter Byrne, Daily Cal Contributing Writer
This story was originally published in the Daily Californian on Tuesday, December 4, 2007.
Click here for original version.

Reprinted by permission.

We've all heard dejected coaches mutter the F-word after their first-year players make a rookie mistake. 'Aww ... freshman.'But Cal women's golfer Pia Halbig hasn't given the Bears coaching staff any reason to complain in her first season.

Much of that can be attributed to the fact that Halbig entered Cal this fall with more experience than many seniors. She won her first German national title for her age group when she was 12 years old and played with the German National Team at age 14.

'I know that I have a lot of experience even if it's not in college golf,' says Halbig. 'I've played in all the big European tournaments and on a lot of teams.'

For instance, as one of four competitors for Germany during the 2006 European Team Championships, Halbig found herself in a pressure-packed situation. Her underdog German squad was trailing favored Spain in the final round by a sizeable margin. With just six holes left in her match play event, Halbig trailed her Spanish opponent by four holes.

'I like pressure,' says Halbig. 'I'm the kind of person that can handle it well.'

Indeed, Halbig rallied late, winning four holes in a row. On the tournament's final hole, which she needed to win to clinch victory for her home country, Halbig was left with a four-foot putt. With her team's hopes squarely on her shoulders, Halbig sank it.

'Nothing ever enters Pia's mind that she can't do,' says head coach Nancy McDaniel. 'You can walk up to Pia on the 18th hole and tell her we need her to make this, and she'd be better off knowing it.'

Halbig's strong-mindedness shined through during her recruitment process as well. At only 18 years old, Halbig verbally committed to Cal before ever visiting the Bay Area.

So by the time Halbig arrived in Berkeley last August, the Bears coaches already had a feeling that she was something special. Halbig soon made sure her teammates knew as well.

In one of the team's first fall practices, Halbig challenged sophomore Sofia Janer to a short game contest. Junior teammate Shannon Yocum recalls that Halbig asked Janer whether she should give her a chance or just shut her out in the contest.

'We were like `Wow, here's a freshman challenging us,'' says Yocum. 'It showed her competitive spirit early on. Pia keeps grinding at you and pushes you to keep up.'

Although Janer ended up besting Halbig in the contest, the team realized that the freshman was for real.

McDaniel also remembers Halbig asserting herself in a different way before the team's first tournament, the Ram Fall Classic in Fort Collins, Colo.

'In the first team meeting before Colorado State, she raised her hand and said, `Let's make sure we all get off to a good start,'' says McDaniel. 'It showed us that she wasn't afraid to be vocal.'

The Bears won the tournament, as Halbig finished second overall in individual competition.

But shooting at even-par in her first collegiate tournament doesn't seem like much compared to the transition Halbig has had to make off the course. Moving nearly 6,000 miles from home to attend a top American university without full command of the English language is more difficult than any long birdie putt Halbig has been faced with.

'She's done the best of any international freshman I've seen,' says Yocum. 'She's really strong emotionally. Just like she's in a bubble under pressure, she's the same off the course. We know she misses her family, but she doesn't think about being homesick.'

Halbig's teammates have done their best to make her transition easier. Whether it's cooking her dinner, hanging out as a team or inviting her back home for Thanksgiving as Yocum did, the team has made sure that Halbig feels at home halfway across the world.

'She knows she's part of the team, and that makes it easier,' says Yocum. 'We really try to create a family atmosphere.'

After the fall season, the sky appears to be the limit for Halbig. In addition to her second-place finish in Colorado, Halbig tied with sophomore Roseanne Niven for the best scoring average on the team at 74.3. As much as anyone, Halbig is responsible for Cal's resurgence, which has landed the team a top-10 national ranking after a disappointing spring.

'She filled a small gap on our team,' says McDaniel. 'We had four players returning, and we needed someone to come in and play. For a freshman to come in and play at the level she has is phenomenal.'

A freshman in class status, yes, but not in manner of action.

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