Jayhawk Insider: The Makings of a Champion

by Sophie Darting

LAWRENCE, Kan.-  The stage was set. It was the last round of the last tournament of the fall and the Jayhawks’ most consistent golfer was leading the whole field in first place.

In the biggest moment of her career, junior Sera Tadokoro pulled through.

With a career-best score of 8-under par 208, Tadokoro turned in the lowest three-round total at the Louisville Cardinal Cup on October 20. She bested her opponents during the final two rounds while staying calm and collected, and refusing to surrender her first collegiate tournament win.

And man did it feel good.

I am so happy. Winning a tournament has been my dream. That has always been a goal. I have been playing well all fall and kind of waiting to see if everything would fall into place. I had a good outing the tournament before and my coaches told me it was going to happen, I just had to be patient and take it shot by shot. I did that and it felt like hard work finally paying off.

Sera Tadokoro
sera tadokoro wins cardinal cup 2019 photo

Tadokoro has shot consistently for the Jayhawks all fall, getting closer and closer to a first place finish with every round. Her lockdown final round of the fall left quite the impression on her head coach.

“Winning is hard at any level and Sera’s win in Louisville was huge,” said Erin O’Neil. “We haven’t had an individual champion in a few years and we are so very proud of her efforts. She had the lead going into the final round and handled herself like a pro from start to finish.  It would be easy to sleep on a lead and let all the good and bad thoughts run through your head all night, but she looked cool, calm and collected all day.  I loved seeing her play with confidence and really lean into the pressure of being in the top spot.  It was a very exciting way to wrap up the fall season to say the least.”

Until this past weekend, it had been 1,289 days since the Kansas women’s golf team saw an individual named a tournament champion. Yupaporn “Mook” Kawinpakorn placed first in the Texas Tech Invitational on April 8-9, 2016 and the Jayhawks hadn’t seen a champion since.

Interestingly enough, Mook is an idol for Tadokoro and her legacy is something that she looks up to.

“When I was a freshman, I made a goal for myself,” said Tadokoro. “I wanted to be like Mook. She won a lot of tournaments her senior year here and I just really admire her and want my legacy to be like hers.”

Tadokoro impressed her coaches early enough in her freshman year that she saw action in eight tournaments during her rookie campaign. In the time since, she has grown exponentially

“The first tournament my freshman year, I wasn’t expecting anything,” said Tadokoro. “I was so nervous because college is so different from junior golf. In junior golf, you aren’t competing as a team so it is very different. I was so excited but so nervous. After the first two tournaments I was less nervous and focused on competing. I had an ‘I got this’ type of mentality. The experience has helped me not freak out when I start doing bad.”

In the span of two years she has transformed from the nervous freshman in her collegiate debut at the Minnesota Invitational to a tournament champion at the Louisville Invitational. Coach O’Neil thinks the majority of her growth has occurred recently.

The biggest key to Sera’s growth has really occurred in the past nine months. It’s her goal to play at the next level, and she made the decision last January to start the process of making a swing change that would allow her to have more control over her ball flight as well as a change to her putting stroke which is never easy to do while also competing. She understood that the sooner she started the process the sooner she would be able to start reaching her goals, like winning her first collegiate tournament. She fully committed to the process, met with her swing instructor consistently and was very coachable in learning new shots around the greens as well as course management strategies.

Erin O'Neil, Head Coach
Kansas Jayhawks

The coachable personality and hustle mentality is what sets Tadokoro apart from her teammates. Her commitment and dedication to competing at the highest level possible paired with her willingness to change her approach has been a giant step in the right direction.

“There were plenty of ups and downs which is normal with any significant change but she persevered through it and didn’t give up on what she was working on,” said O’Neil. “What we are seeing now is the culmination of that hard work and it certainly didn’t happen overnight.  She’s hitting the ball the best I’ve ever seen her and is averaging 79% on greens in regulation, which is phenomenal.  Her par-5 scoring average is at 4.75, which is the best we have had from anyone since Yupaporn Kawinpakorn (2012-16) was on the team.”

Her road to the leaderboard has been quite the journey, with a few bumps along the way.

Tadokoro began golfing when she was 11 years old, but it wasn’t always her first choice.

“I actually used to play softball and it was a dream of mine to play softball in college,” said Tadokoro. “My parents wanted me to keep going with golf. It was fun so I stuck with it and I was good at it. It worked out.”

Once she decided to stick with golf, she hit a stride and was soon committed to play golf at Central Florida. After being committed for about two years, the decision didn’t quite feel right and so she decided to start looking into other colleges again.

“Coach Katy (Nahm) reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in Kansas,” said Tadokoro. “Once I visited, I really liked the resources at KU, they were so nice. I really liked the coaches and my would-be teammates. It was a good fit.”

A good fit indeed. Kansas has become much more than just a place to her. Tadokoro went to high school in South Carolina, so being far away from her family in Japan is nothing new. She has found a second support system here in Lawrence, with both of her coaches and her teammates.

“I am very close with my teammates,” said Tadokoro. “They are so supportive of everyone and in every situation, whether it is weights, or practice, or during a tournament. The coaches have really helped me too, I know I can go to them if I need anything.”

The atmosphere that the Kansas women’s golf team develops is reliant on the players’ ability and willingness to learn and help each other along the way.

Kansas Jayhawks

“Our team has three core values for the year: to be coachable, competitive and accountable,” said O’Neil. “We do our best to reinforce those values as much as possible by finding ways to recognize our players when they show those traits.  Each value is an important piece of becoming the best golfer and person that you can be.  To be a successful player, you have to be open to learning new ways of doing things or new ways of thinking; obviously, a love for competing is crucial; and most importantly, in my opinion, is being accountable for your own game.  Our most successful players have all embodied these traits and when you combine those attributes with the resources our athletic department is able to provide, then the sky is the limit for anyone willing to put in the effort.”

Tadokoro has grown and thrived in the type of environment that she was thrown into as a freshman, and her first tournament is a testament to that.

After getting so close to a tournament victory at both the Lady Paladin Invitational and the Palmetto Intercollegiate in the weeks before heading to Louisville, Tadokoro knew she was on the cusp of something great, she just had to keep grinding.

She decided to change up her routine in the last tournament of the fall, neglecting to look at the scoreboard during the entire contest to alleviate self-inflicted pressure.

“The whole tournament I didn’t look at the scoreboard,” said Tadokoro. “I didn’t look on my phone, didn’t look anywhere else, just so that I didn’t put that added pressure on myself. I would ask my teammates how we were doing as a team, but I wouldn’t look at where I was in the standings. I knew I was playing good enough, that I was doing well enough to potentially get a win. I learned that I do better when I don’t start think about how I am doing on the scoreboard.”

Her coaches also proved to be a calming presence for her during that final round.

“Both of my coaches have helped me so much during tournaments because they know the situation and they are always encouraging me, telling me how close I am and that they know I have it in me to go out and win every tournament that I compete in,” said Tadokoro. “They have taught me everything. Whether it is with golf, mentally, academically or outside of golf, they are there. They have taught us that we are good enough and we can handle whatever difficulties we might face.”

sera smiles at sunflower tournament

Another thing that stands out about Tadokoro is the positivity she radiates. It is something that she has grown to lean on when shots aren’t going her way or she is struggling during a tournament.

“One thing that is different about me now than my freshman year is my attitude,” said Tadokoro. “I am much more confident in my game now and I am always smiling. I think that smiling and having a much more positive mindset has helped me a lot. I always tell myself that I can do it and I am good enough to handle any situation.”

Believing in herself, rather than fostering doubts, has been a major key to her success at the collegiate level. She notes that having courage in what she can accomplish has helped her progression as a player even more between her sophomore and junior campaigns.

Tadokoro still has plenty of time as a Jayhawk to write her name in the record books and O’Neil believes that she has it in her.

I’m so excited for Sera and am encouraged to see her hard work starting to pay off. Seeing a player grow into their potential is one of my favorite parts about being a coach and it’s been wonderful to watch Sera reach the potential we saw in her as a junior golfer. I hope this win motivates her to keep believing in herself and to keep pushing herself out of her comfort zone. She can compete with the best and I believe there is more hardware in her future as a Jayhawk.

Erin O'Neil, Head Coach

When it is all said and done, Tadokoro wants to eventually make it to the LPGA. For now, her work at Kansas isn’t finished.

“In order for Sera to get another win this spring she will need to maintain her swing as well as continue to work on fine tuning all parts of her game,” said O’Neil. “When you get to a certain level, it comes down to taking care of the little things even more: eating well, getting enough sleep, checking in with her swing instructor and sports psychologist regularly in the off season, extra time in the gym for example. Competing in another tournament or two over the winter break will help keep her competition skills sharp as well.  She has the system in place, it’s up to her to utilize it as best she can to keep the momentum going.”

She is focused on this offseason and getting her body and her mind prepared every day so that she can make her spring season even more competitive than the fall.

This win definitely motivates me to be even better. My goal in the future is to become a professional golfer and play in the LPGA. Now, I just want to win more tournaments and this is a step in the right direction. I want to practice harder and get better every day.

Sera Tadokoro