Gilliam hopes to build on sensational freshman year at Mississippi State
Updated: May 29
Manchester’s Ashley Gilliam encountered a recent dilemma that only could occur in these strangest of times.
By Gregg Dewalt
Tee Times Editor
Playing with her sister and father at her home course – Lakewood Country Club – Gilliam launched her second shot on a par-4. It tracked the pin, bounced and rolled up and clanked against the raised cup.
Under normal circumstances – with the cup nestled in the ground – the ball would have either settled into the bottom of the cup for an eagle 2 or hit the pin and bounced away. The shot would have had a definitive result.
With different guidelines in place due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – like raising the cup to avoid golfers from touching the flagstick - the result was a little murkier. Was it an eagle or not?
“I would say no because it could bounce off the pin, but I don’t know,” Gilliam said recently, pondering the question for a second. “I think I did write down an eagle because my dad was up there and he said it did slowly roll into the middle. I was also playing my sister, so I said that’s an eagle. It was a good shot, though, so we’ll take the eagle.”
That has been about the only thing perplexing for Gilliam in the past year as she transitioned from junior/high school golf into one of the brightest true freshmen golfers in the country.
Gilliam recently completed her first year at Mississippi State, and her results definitely lived up to expectations. In late May, Gilliam was named first-team All-SEC after previously garnering third-team All-America and honorable mention All-America status from different entities.
Along the way, Gilliam set the program record for scoring average (70.61), which was second in the SEC and sixth nationally. She had three top three finishes and four top 10s.
Her first-year performance, though, didn’t surprise coach Ginger Brown-Lemm.
“I expected Ashley to have a season like this,” Brown-Lemm said. “I’ve seen her play for at least four years prior to joining us at Mississippi State. She is an athlete that works very hard on her craft. Her dedication to the mental game, small details of scoring, her commitment to nutrition, strength and conditioning and thriving in an elite team environment were all factors in her development. She has grown as a person and as a player and that really came out in her performances.”
Gilliam said the adjustment to playing college golf wasn’t overwhelming, and she credited her extensive junior experience as one reason why.
“I played a lot of competitive golf as a junior – AJGA at a high level and played in a lot of USGA events,” she said. “I felt like I had a lot of preparation coming into college.”
Gilliam’s adjustment to college golf was likely easier given her close relationship with Mississippi State’s program. Even though her mother played at Ole Miss, Gilliam committed to the Bulldogs as a freshman in high school. She stayed true to that commitment despite interest from other SEC schools. It helped that a friend – Aubree Jones from Covington – was already committed to the Bulldogs at that time. Jones recently completed her junior season at MSU.
Gilliam said it didn’t take much to convince her that Mississippi State was the right place to continue her education and playing career.
“I went on a visit to Mississippi State and fell in love with Starkville and the program,” she said. “Coach Brown and the chemistry she has on the team, the practice facilities. It’s just a great place. It feels like I have been down here for way longer (than one year). I felt like Starkville was my second home already so there wasn’t really any change.”
Gilliam’s coach is VJ Trolio at Old Waverly, one of Mississippi State’s home courses. Mossy Oak, it’s companion course across the street, is home base for the Bulldogs’ state-of-the-art practice facility. While still in high school Gilliam made the trek south to visit Trolio, who has worked with MSU alum and current LPGA player Ally McDonald.
“He’s not too technical and explains things really well,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam’s freshman year highlight was helping Mississippi State win its final tournament of the spring before college athletics were shut down. The victory at the Westbrook Spring Invitational in Peoria, Arizona, was the first for MSU since 2014 and Gilliam’s tie for second place at 13-under-par was her best of the season. The tournament field included SEC foes Tennessee and Missouri, several Big Ten teams and also Oklahoma.
“That wasn’t a typical tournament,” she said. “Our practice round got rained out, so we walked the course and got to putt. We didn’t get to hit any tee shots or anything. We had to grind it out and not let it affect us. It really showed that we could get out there and win under any circumstances. Ending the season with a win was a good to end it. It was a good way to go out even though our season did get cut short.”
Since the season ended, Gilliam has tried to keep to as normal of a routine as possible. She works out at home, plays and practices at Lakewood CC, and makes frequent trips to Starkville to work with Trolio.
Her summer schedule remains in flux because of the uncertainty going forward on what events will be available. And, she’s looking forward to her sophomore season to see what it has in store.
Brown-Lemm has an idea of what that entails.
“Ashley is the total package,” she said. “With the support of the team of coaches and trainers here at Mississippi State, her commitment and competitive drive, she can go as far as she sets her mind to. She absolutely has what it takes.”