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Unexpected path gives Gillis joy

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Golf star learned from peaks, valleys of career

By John Herndon

Bad ankles only meant a good path for Taylor Gillis.

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Now graduated from the University of the Cumberlands, the Anderson County native can honestly look back at her eight-year, and counting, career on the golf course and wonder “What if?”

What if some ankle problems had not developed while Gillis was the first one off the bench for a powerful basketball team at Anderson County Middle School?

What if a former star basketball player had not seen her at church one Sunday moring and invited her to golf tryouts?

But unlike most “What ifs?” Taylor Gillis say the path she took has been filled with blessings. And along the way, she became one Kentucky's best high school golfers, then took things even further as she developed into one the the nation's best female small-college players.

“My dad told me, 'Play another sport!'” says Gillis, who graduated from Cumberlands on May 10.

And a basketball player who attended First Christian Church with Gillis helped her pick whch sport that would be. “I was at church one Sunday and (former Anderson Coutny all-stater and Georgetown College All-American) Will Carlton said to me, 'We are having golf tryouts Monday.' I went out for the team.”

Carlton was the boys' coach, but directed Gillis to Lynn Gritton, who was guiding the girls' team.

That first round – “I shot a million!” Gillis laughs – gave little indication that Gillis would one day be ranked among the NAIA's Top Ten, be named All-Mid-South Conference or that she would play on the first team from Cumberlands to make the national tournament.

Or that Taylor Gillis would want to coach the sport she has grown to love. While scholastic golf is over, Gillis hopes the sport offers still another path.

“I feel like I was where I was supposed to be and I thank the Lord for it,” Gillis says. “It has had its highs and lows, but that is life.”

The highs were easy. At Anderson County High School, Gillis qualified for the state tournament as a junior, only her third year of competitive golf. At Cumberlands, she had 17 Top 10 finishes and played in two national tournaments. As a junior playing in the NAIA Tournament at Wilderness Ridge Golf Course in Lincoln, Nebraska, she finished 10th.

There were two individual tournament championships in the fall of her senior year.

In the classroom, Gillis was named academic All-American twice and All-Mid-South Conference three times.

It had seemed like a charmed life.

That is, charmed until what was to be Gillis' final months at Cumberlands.

Oh, there had been some downers along the way. Four years earlier, as a high school senior, Gillis overcame a nighmarish start at the regional tournament on her home course at Wild Turkey Trace. Somehow she rallied on the back nine to force extra holes to determine the final qualifier for the state tournament.

Even though Gillis parred the hole, her good friend, Kelly Crawford of Lafayette, hit an incredible approach shot, then birdied. It prompted Gillis to say at the time, “No boyfriend will ever break my heart as much as the game of golf did.”

Four years later, Gillis knows that one was nothing compared to her final season at Cumberlands.

After a successful fall, Gillis says, “I had an awful, awful spring.”

First, as an elementary education major, Gillis knew there would be the pressures of student teaching. What she was not planning on was a brutal winter that forced public schools to close many times because of snow or ice. She first taught in Whitley County, where Cumberlands is located, then at home, in the Anderson County school system.

Despite the weather playing havoc, she was able to meet state requirements before graduation.

But even that inconvenience, with all of its stress, was nothing compared to the life-shattering news Gillis got during what was supposed to be a joyous senior year of college.

Her grandfather, Jim Link, to whom she was very close, was diagnosed with cancer.

And when her final Mid-South Conference Tournament teed off, it looked like Gillis might write her own storybook ending. After the first day at Bardstown's Maywood course, Gillis was all alone in first place with a par-72.

But her heart was at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where, unbeknownst to her, Jim Link had taken a turn for the worst.

“I had talked to him on the Saturday before the tournament,” Taylor says. “He said, 'You play hard this week.'”

Uncharacteristically, Gillis shot an 83 and a 92 in her final two rounds, dropping her all the way to 18th place in the final standings and out of the top five scores used to compile the Cumberlands team total.

The Patriots still won the tournament and those top five golfers moved on to the national tournament.

Gillis, even after the high scoring rounds, received the conference Champions of Character Award during the tournament awards ceremony. Gillis' parents, Rick and Laura, had not told her just how sick her grandfather was. It was Wednesday, April 23.

“We finished playing around 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” Gillis says. “Both of my parents were with me. I didn't know how sick my grandfather was until after the awards ceremony.”

Jim Link passed away later that night. Taylor and her parents were able to spend time with him before he died.

“I never wanted (her grandfather's illness) to be an excuse,” Gillis says. “But while I am a golfer, before that, I am a daughter, sister and granddaughter.”

It is that kind of perspective that Gillis wants to bring into the classroom and to the golf course.

Gillis, who is currently working in junior golf camps and adult clinics at Man-O-War Golf in Lexington, knew early in life she wanted to teach. She wants to find a way to combine her love of the course with her love of the classroom. She is still waiting for that call to her first full-time teaching job.

“I cannot be in a bad mood in the classroom,” she says with a huge smile. “There is just no way to explain it.”

The end of her collegiate career did not go as planned, but Gillis believes it has taught her a lasting life lesson

“It hurts to not go to the national tournament as a senior,” she says, “but in those moments, I know there is something bigger going on. Over the last four years, I have gained an appreciation for my church, my family, my town and my school system.”

And there seems to be an understanding that a chosen path also includes some unexpected turns.

“It will all work out,” she smiles. “I love teaching and I love golf.”