• 70°

Valeria Pichardo’s American Journey, Success Was Years in the Making

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — It was more than learning the game at a young age for Southern Miss women’s golfer Valeria Pichardo. She was already exploring the entire North American continent.

“I always came to the U.S. multiple times as a kid for junior tournaments, ever since I was 8,” Pichardo, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, said. “After I was 15, that’s when I started looking at schools and recruitment. Then, I need to look in different tournaments where coaches were going to be. I looked into the AGAA, I think it was Summer 2015 when I played a couple there and in Rolex Junior Golf, playing in North Carolina.”

She gained a spot in that tournament via the Mexican Golf Association, getting her first experience of playing in front of coaches. It was also her first time playing in the U.S. since she was 12. Then-head coach Erika Brennan and assistant (now men’s golf head coach) Eddie Brescher were also there, and Brennan watched her for nine holes.

“I contacted her and thanked her for following my group, and it started from there,” Pichardo, affectionally known as “Peach,” said. “That was my first time knowing about Southern Miss. I was so new to the recruiting process and nobody really mentored me on how to do anything. I figured I had to contact her otherwise she’d never know about me (in summer 2015). I did talk to other coaches along the way, but something I tell others was that the main reason was the coaches and the program, but I appreciated that after the summer, I wasn’t going to play in the US for a few months.”

Unbeknownst to Pichardo at the time, she was only a group or two away from eventual Southern Miss teammate Emily Cox, who was also discovered there.

Naturally, these American trips were expensive. Her next trip was not until January 2016 in Florida, and by that time other coaches regrettably informed Pichardo they had already signed other recruits. Pichardo credits Brennan’s patience and kindness in the process as a leading factor in verbally committing after the Florida event.

She and her dad visited the campus in April, stopping through New Orleans first, enjoyed the university and course, and ultimately signed in November.

That trip with her father also came after Pichardo did a lot of her amateur golf traveling without her parents.

“There was a year where I was studying in Canada from 14-15, and I did play three junior tournaments in Ontario,” she said. “I was the only girl on the golf team on my high school team there. [For other tournaments] I had to find someone to go with, so I’d go with my friends from childhood and their parents. I would stay in my own room and they’d look after me. Whoever I went with, their kids were also playing. They were going to same place and look after me, but it wasn’t something where I went with whoever. As a teenager you feel so independent, but it is cool to go on trips in the U.S. my mom went with me a couple of times.”

Both of her parents had an impact on her golf development at a young age in different and humorous ways. Pichardo began playing when she was five. She says her father played it as a hobby after his friends encouraged him to try it, later passing it along to her.

“I was involved in Spanish dancing (flamenco), but my dad introduced golf to me and that was it,” she said. “I don’t remember it, but my parents said I loved it. My mom even said that when I was little and misbehaved, she would threaten me with not taking me to golf practice and I’d say ‘okay, okay.’ I know that at some point, you start growing up and show different interests and come back to it. I was 7 or 8 and started coming back to it and later going international.”

As Pichardo has progressed through her 18 career tournaments, she has also improved her stroke average each year. She says she gives much of the credit to head coach Lucy Burke.

“Something we say as a team is being ‘masters of the basics,'” Pichardo said. “If your foundation isn’t great, what can you do from there. I’m thankful for all the little things she’s done that over last few years, I didn’t pay attention to and really should have.”

It goes even further than that. The clubs appeared to be a factor, too.

“I got new irons at the beginning of 2019,” Pichardo said. “That helped drastically. The last set I had previously was from when I was 15, and from then to 20 is a big change in how strong you are and your swing speed. There was a need for change, and she helped with that in making sure I had new irons. She put a lot of focus on making sure I had the appropriate tools to be better. you can make changes, but if you don’t have the equipment, there’s only so much you can do, and those small things are what I really appreciate.”

Burke also shared sentiments about how Pichardo has made her and the team itself better.

“Valeria has helped make the transition for our younger international players easier and has helped me navigate the process along the way too,” Burke said. “She has grown quicker than others, and that growth and perspective have really shown up in how she takes care of herself and her teammates. It’s not easy moving away from home, and even more so to a foreign country, but she has created a second family here. We are extremely thankful she chose us.”

From the physical tools to the mental ones, Pichardo has taken all her lessons as a student-athlete, and an international one at that, to help shape her plans after golf: first working with the university’s International Student and Scholar Services department. As a business student (international studies specifically), she gets one year of postgrad work.

“I wanted to start working with them because I’m more interested in the immigration side of international business,” she said. “That’s something that’s always interested me. I wanted to focus on and I’m going to get a permit for a year to work with them. I want to learn as much as I can with the immigration process. I’m not sure if I’d want to learn the student side of it, especially considering my experience, and I know all the effort that has to get done. Starting with them can really give me a foundation while I see what else is out there.”