Brains & Birdies: A Winning Formula For Virginia Elena Carta - MTG Series
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
It’s fair to say that golf isn’t the first sport people associate with Italy. Soccer immediately springs to mind for most, as does basketball or even skiing. But that’s not to say it’s a completely foreign sport to Italians, thanks to the Molinari brothers rise to fame, culminating in Francesco’s victory in the 2018 Open Championship. The Ryder Cup coming to Rome in 2023 also promises to raise the game’s in-country profile to never-before-seen heights.
When it comes to women’s golf, Milan-born Virginia Elena Carta is poised to make her mark in the coming years. But before pursuing her LPGA dreams, the first thing she set out to do – rather uniquely – was to get a Masters degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities. And that came on the heels of obtaining her undergraduate degree from one of the United States’ top institutions of higher learning.
To say Virginia is taking the “road less traveled” to the LPGA is an understatement. But in doing so, she’s betting on it making her not only a better person, but a better golfer, too.
“I played basketball as a kid, while also learning how to fence and sail,” says Virginia, a 2019 graduate of Duke University.
“My mom played golf, but not competitively. She loved it and had an early-morning tee time every Saturday morning at our club so she could get out before competitive member play began. She began bringing me when I was around five, and I just loved being out in nature with her.”
While an excellent basketball player as a child, an injured ankle at the age of 12 caused Virginia to turn her full-time focus to golf.
“I was shooting in the low 80s and high 70s when I started really concentrating on golf. I loved team sports and learned so much from those experiences, things like focus, concentration and hand-eye coordination. I was also very competitive and driven to try to hit the ball as far as the boys I trained with on my junior team.”
As Virginia improved, she began playing in international tournaments. For example, in 2013 she played in the ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex and Junior Solheim Cup, while the following year she played the Junior Ryder Cup and visited Asia to play in the Youth Olympic Games in China and World Amateur Team Championships in Japan.
“Traveling the world to play tournaments has been incredible. The opportunity I’ve had to meet different people is one of the best things about golf.”
Before heading to the U.S. to play in the 2013 ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex, Virginia’s first interaction with Annika was a year earlier at the ANNIKA Invitational Europe.
“I’ve always admired Annika and I’m so lucky to have her as a mentor. I actually first saw her at the 2008 Women’s British Open when I walked by her, and I remember I couldn’t believe it was her. When I talk to her now, I still ask her so many questions. She has so much great advice to share and represents so many values that aren’t related to golf. And many of the tips I picked up from her during the skills clinics at the various Foundation events I played in I still use to this day.”
As Virginia’s game improved, she began to be approached by college coaches. Until that time, college golf hadn’t really been part of her plans. While she knew about Duke Basketball, she didn’t have a lot of familiarity with the golf program until Coach Dan Brooks watched her at the ANNIKA Invitational USA.
“The first shot Coach Brooks saw me hit was a 3-wood into a par 5. I hit the green and he immediately went to the Italian team captain and said ‘I want her on my team.’ He and I joke about this all the time.”
Virginia enjoyed the recruiting process and had many offers from schools around the U.S., but in Duke she saw a school that offered the perfect balance between golf and academics.
“It was hard to say no to other schools; it involved a lot of tears and was the worst part of being recruited. But I’m lucky in that I maintained a relationship with many of those coaches even though I didn’t pick their schools. One even told me to ‘never look back on my decision’ and I really appreciated those classy words of advice.”
Upon arriving on campus, Virginia found it really hard to balance golf, school and a new country. Her first year flew by.
“There were challenges, including language at first, but they didn’t seem enormous at the time because I loved the school. Kenny King and the academic advisory staff offered incredible support and the faculty was great, too. It was quite intense, but I loved every second of it.”
On the course, Coach Brooks was big on qualifying rounds before tournaments. Whenever possible, he liked to use four before an event if schedules allowed.
“I was so scared of not making the travel team my freshman year. I remember shaking just trying to put my ball on the tee and telling Celine Boutier [a senior on the team] I couldn’t get myself to stay calm.”
In many ways, the qualifying events were more intense than tournaments themselves. And that was the genius of them – they got Virginia and her Blue Devil teammates ultra-prepared to play their very best.
When asked about her favorite memories from her time in Durham, Virginia mentions spending time with her dormmates during her senior year, as well as the entire academic experience and the spearheading of the charity ‘Birdies for Babies’ that collects funds for the Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care Units at Duke Children’s Hospital. On the course, she’s most fond of winning the individual NCAA championship her freshman year and the team NCAA championship her senior year. That feat makes her one of only 20 players, male or female, to win both.
Virginia earned her B.A. from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She credits her time spent with her grandfather in his garden as what instilled her interest in nature and eventual decision to study environmental science.
“The atmosphere [at Nicholas] was unbelievable. My study focus was on food systems and there were so many opportunities for research. I did my dissertation on the socioeconomic impacts of sustainable and organic agriculture to local communities. I was also able to take four or five graduate classes and one Ph.D. class. All my classmates were so smart, driven, and impressive and I learned so much from them and faculty members.”
Given her passion for her studies, completing an advanced degree after she finished at Duke became her next challenge. She was accepted into the U.K.’s world-renowned University of Cambridge, where she received an “MPhil” in Environmental Policy last month. An “MPhil” is the U.K.’s equivalent to a Masters degree in the U.S.
Virginia was planning to enter LPGA Q-School this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. She will now look to play in Q-School next August.
While she waited, she knew she had to do something to keep her game sharp. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she decided to join the men’s golf team. But to compete in their events, and harkening back to Annika’s ground-breaking performance at Colonial in 2003, she had to play from the men’s tee boxes.
“It tested new parts of my game, as I got really good with my fairway woods and long irons. And I also got to play in the Varsity Match at Muirfield this past August, which was an amazing experience.”
The Varsity Match pits Cambridge against its arch-rival Oxford. It dates back to 1878, making it the oldest amateur event in golf. Virginia became only the fourth woman to ever play in the event and is now a member of the Cambridge and Oxford Golfing Society.
“Every weekend I played 36 holes on Saturdays and Sundays with the team at some of the greatest golf courses in the U.K. – places like Sunningdale and Royal St. George’s, Rye and Royal Porthcawl. It was so much fun; the guys welcomed me with open arms. Beyond playing the men’s tees, the thing that actually took the most getting used to was wearing the Cambridge blue, which is much closer to the light blue worn by North Carolina than the darker blue I was used to from Duke!”
As Virginia prepares for next year’s Q-School, she’s actively looking for sponsors to help defray her costs, while also seeking exemptions into LPGA and other professional events. It will be the culmination of years of hard work, on and off the course. With a little time to reflect after her graduation from Cambridge, she would tell her younger self these three things:
- Enjoy the process and have fun with it – it’s not a job
- Appreciate the opportunities golf gives you
- Play from challenging tee boxes and against boys!
“I want to inspire other girls and show them that you can pursue both your golf and academic dreams at the same time.”
With degrees from Duke and Cambridge, there’s little doubt Virginia is set up for success, whether or not her LPGA plans come to fruition!