Hannah Levi had seen this putt before.
On Nov. 8 at the Liz Murphey Fall Collegiate in Athens, Georgia, the Mississippi State redshirt sophomore lined up the shot with a chance to win the tournament outright: a 5-foot putt for par on a slight downhill slope with break from right to left.
She hit it too hard.
Levi’s miss left her two and a half feet past the hole. Her return putt, too, lipped out hard around the cup. She cleaned up for a double bogey, settling for a tie for first place rather than having the individual title all to herself.
Stunned, Levi felt her mind swirl with questions.
“Why didn’t I make that putt?” she asked herself “What was going on? Why was I so shaky over that putt?”
Not long after, Levi heard a message she’d never forget.
“Somebody told me that I was going to learn a lot from that putt, and that’s exactly what happened,” she said.
Facing nearly the same putt for birdie in the semifinal round of the Southeastern Conference championships April 17 against LSU, Levi sank it to send the Bulldogs on to the finals, capping a stellar run for the No. 12 seed in the tournament.
It was a signature moment for Levi after a turbulent college career as she has stepped up to lead Mississippi State to success. And with the NCAA tournament in a few weeks, the Bulldogs’ season isn’t over yet.
“Obviously we had a good week this week, but we are not anywhere close to finished,” senior Blair Stockett said.
An uncertain future
Hannah Levi knew it was time.
The pain in her hip had grown to the point where she could no longer walk 18 holes without feeling it. She was competing in a U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier in July 2019 when she simply knew.
“Walking that course, I came to the realization that this just was not going to work,” Levi said.
She’d already made an appointment with a specialist about her injury, but it was at that point that she knew it would likely require surgery. At the end of August, Levi underwent a procedure to repair a torn labrum in her hip. Doctors reattached the ring of cartilage to Levi’s pelvis and shaved down the head of her femur to remove a jutting piece of bone.
Before it had started, Levi’s sophomore season with the Bulldogs was over. She applied for a medical redshirt year, wondering what was in store for her.
“After that injury, there were a lot of unknowns,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get back to my normal self. I didn’t know what the future held for me.”
Levi did whatever she could to stay close to the team. She spent the fall season as the Bulldogs’ unofficial “support system,” hitting “refresh” on Golfstat.com pages countless times to check her teammates’ scores from afar.
She didn’t pick up a club until November, when she began chipping and putting again. Full swings followed in mid-December.
But Levi spent plenty of time working on her recovery however she could. She ran on an anti-gravity treadmill that reduced her body weight to lessen the strain. She strengthened her core, her balance and her hip, and the changes translated to increasing her distance off the tee.
In April 2020, after COVID-19 cost Levi’s teammates the rest of a promising season, she played a full round with a few friends. When she realized the pain she’d been feeling hadn’t even made an appearance, she was convinced.
“I’m going to be the player I was if not even better,” she told herself.
Leading the way
According to Mississippi State coach Charlie Ewing, Levi at full strength is a heck of a player for the Bulldogs.
The tallest golfer on the team at 5-foot-10, she has the build to whack balls further than anyone. A tremendous ball-striker, Levi routinely reaches the green in regulation, leaving herself easy pars. Couple that with a tremendous mindset, and Levi has limitless potential, Ewing said.
“She has the drive,” he said. “She has the tools. She has the belief in herself.”
Not only is Levi a strong player, she’s a leader for her teammates. She and Stockett are the Bulldogs’ two captains, and Ewing said Levi has the confidence to take charge in the clubhouse.
“If you’re going to be a successful golf program, especially at a championship level, and make a run or win a championship, you have to have somebody leading the way in a big way,” Ewing said. “Hannah has totally taken on the responsibility that she’s willing to be that person.”
But it took a few tournaments for Levi — and the Bulldogs — to find that form. In October at her first event back, she shot an opening-round 84 at The Blessings Collegiate Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as Mississippi State finished second to last in the 14-team SEC meet.
Levi got better over the team’s next two tournaments, closing the three-event fall season with her tie for first place in Georgia. The Bulldogs finished in sixth place, an improvement from their prior two weekends.
Five days later, a bombshell dropped. Then-head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm resigned from the school after more than 10 years leading the program.
On Dec. 2, Ewing — previously an assistant with the Bulldogs’ men’s team — took her place.
With the two teams sharing a practice facility in West Point, Mississippi State’s women’s players were familiar with Ewing and his wife Ally McDonald, an LPGA pro who later came aboard as a volunteer assistant. Still, the transition wasn’t easy.
“Honestly, it was pretty tough, but we couldn’t have asked for a better new coach than Coach Ewing,” Stockett said.
In the spring season, the Bulldogs started off slow again: 13th at UCF, 13th at Florida, seventh at South Carolina, 12th at Georgia. But at the LSU Tiger Golf Classic to close out the spring, Mississippi State — and Levi — rebounded.
Levi shot a 70 and a 71 before ending the weekend with a 77, finishing 2-over par and tying for 14th place individually. The Bulldogs finished in eighth, ahead of four top-25 teams in the country.
Still, they were given the No. 12 seed when the SEC tournament bracket came out. Ewing said his team deserved that based on its past performance, but no one expected the Bulldogs to go quietly.
“There was definitely that feeling of, that 12 seed meant absolutely nothing to anybody,” Ewing said. “It was not an indication of where we were going to finish in this golf tournament.”
A lot more to prove
True to their word, the Bulldogs came out swinging. On April 14, Levi, Ashley Gilliam and Abbey Daniel all fired 5-under 67s at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, in the first round of stroke play, helping Mississippi State to third place.
Levi carded a 70 and a 68 the next two days to lead the Bulldogs to a tie for fifth place in stroke play, earning them the No. 5 seed for match play.
On Saturday, Mississippi State beat No. 4 Ole Miss 3-2 in the quarterfinals as Levi and Clara Moyano each won 4&3 — up four strokes with three holes to go — and Gilliam sank the winning putt on her first playoff hole to bury the Rebels.
Later that day, the Bulldogs faced No. 1 LSU in the semifinals. Daniel and Stockett won their matches, Gilliam tied hers, and Moyano lost. To clinch the match the Bulldogs needed a win.
Levi came to the 18th green with the lead on the Tigers’ Kendall Griffin. With a short birdie putt awaiting her and tons of people crowded around, Levi had a chance to put her team in the championship match.
“It was very, very nerve-racking,” she said. “My only goal right there was to make that putt and get us to the finals.”
Still, her nerves were nothing like they had been in the fall. Since missing her shot in Athens, Levi had trained herself to handle “pressure-cooker” moments like that one. She steeled herself and made the putt, sending Mississippi State to the finals.
“Every time she’s put herself in that sort of uncomfortable, high-stage situation, she performs really well,” Ewing said.
The Bulldogs’ fantastic run ended there. The next day, they were swept by No. 3 seed Auburn, watching the Tigers lift the trophy.
But Ewing and Mississippi State’s players believe that was only the beginning. NCAA regionals begin May 12, and the Bulldogs will await their assignment.
The goals they have in front of them are still there: Finish in the top six of regionals to make it to NCAA championships. Make it to match play. Win matches. Become national champions.
With Levi leading the way, the Bulldogs know anything is possible.
“I think we’re only getting started, and we have a lot more to prove,” Stockett said.