Fairways and Fiction

Emilia Migliaccio is one of the country’s top college
golfers, but that’s not the only story she has to tell.

By Kurt Dusterberg / Photos courtesy of Emilia Migliaccio

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Emilia Migliaccio had just completed the most impressive, tension-packed week of her college golf career. The 20-year-old Cary resident led Wake Forest University to the finals of the 2019 Division I Women’s Golf Championship, where Duke University outlasted Wake Forest by winning two matches in sudden-death. Migliaccio won all three of her matches, leading the championship round.

After the weeklong event in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Migliaccio was due a break, but there she was the next day, playing nine holes with her boyfriend at MacGregor Downs Country Club. Two days later, she played 18 with her mom, dad, and sister in the 92-degree heat. “I’m very go-go-go all the time, so I need to make sure I’m bringing it back a little bit,” she says with a laugh. “Since I love to push myself, I always have to say, ‘Okay, Emilia, maybe it’s a good day not to practice if it’s 100 degrees.’”

It’s hard to blame her for chasing success. She closed out her sophomore year by winning two straight tournaments, including the Atlantic Coast Conference individual title, finishing top among 60 golfers. She was selected first-team all-American and is ranked 16th in the world among amateur women.

Like most college golfers, Migliaccio had a highly successful junior career. But standing out among the nearly 1,500 women playing Division I golf is difficult. The competition, academic demands, and other distractions of college life can take a toll. Yet, at every turn where she could stray from the game, she finds pleasure. Where some find the long hours of practice and playing to be a drain, she embraces the solitary challenges of her sport. “I just love the grind and the difficulty,” she says. “The satisfaction of doing well is so high. It’s so addicting, you just want to keep doing it.”

And instead of indulging in the exhilaration of success, she is conditioned to stay grounded. Her mother, Ulrika Johansson Migliaccio, played on the Swedish national golf team and at the University of Arizona, where she was an all-American. She has taught her daughter to focus on golf’s process rather than the outcome. After shooting her worst score of the year in the opening round of the NCAA Championship, Emilia kept her composure. When she received an encouraging text message after the round, she responded with “Tomorrow will be a great day!”

“To be really good you have to have some bad stuff happen, too,” she says. “It makes you more humble and you realize how hard it is. Then you become a lot more appreciative when the good things happen. You have to make sure you learn from the hard stuff instead of getting down on yourself and regretting it.”

Perhaps the best counterbalance to Migliaccio’s golf career is her academic life. She’s a communications major with a double minor in English and journalism, reflecting her love for writing. She recently published her first work of fiction, Just an Illusion, a 487-page mystery about a young woman who can’t outrun her troubled past. The story grew from an exercise in a creative writing class at Athens Drive High School.

“I don’t know all the ins and outs [of writing],” she says. “I’m just doing it because I’m passionate about it. But I definitely planned it. As soon as you think the story is getting dry, something happens that’s suspenseful. Some of it is kind of sad, but I have to write it because it’s what the characters are doing.”

Her book received a couple of mentions during the Golf Channel’s live broadcast of the NCAA Championship, which helped sell a few copies. “I write almost every day in the summer and over winter break,” she says. “It’s just a great outlet for me to have something to do other than golf.”

But the fairways still take priority over fiction.“My biggest goal is to be No. 1 in the world one day,” she says. “I love golf, and I want to be the best at what I do. Over the years, I’ve just developed a stronger love for the game.”

Her devotion to golf did not come without sacrifices. Many of her teenage years were spent traveling to tournaments all over the country. There was a time when she worried about what she might be missing. “I used to when I was younger, but now, no, not at all,” she says confidently. “I’m busy all the time, and I love it. I’ve really grown to love being different. I love getting up at 6:30 or 7 AM and working out hard at the gym, then going to practice, then spending time with my family in the evening.”

She realizes, however, that golf can’t be her entire life. “You want to make sure you have a balance. I’ve fallen into that trap, too,” she says. “I’m very extroverted. I need to be around people for energy. I do make time to hang out with my friends, because I love them. It’s really special when I see them. But I don’t miss the conventional: ‘What did you do today?’ ‘I watched Netflix!’ ‘Oh, great!’”

That’s not a knock on her friends. It’s just that Migliaccio knows her dream involves a lot of self-discipline. Even among her teammates, her commitment is legendary. When new coach Kim Lewellen came to Wake Forest last year, she sent a group message asking each player their favorite candy. One of the seniors responded, “Emilia’s is fruit.” Indeed, she doesn’t touch desserts. “I love eating healthy,” she says. “My mom makes very healthy, amazing dinners. Eating healthy makes me feel good and I know it helps my performance, too. If you can eat healthy, work out, and be very strong, you’re going to be more powerful.”

Do not think, however, that Migliaccio’s love for the game is only about winning. She recently spent time working with kids from The First Tee program, which teaches character and life skills through golf. She was touched when she received letters from two of the kids. “The reason why I do it is that I love to inspire people,” she says. “I just want to be a really good role model, and golf is a great way to be an influential figure to young kids.”

One day, she hopes to do that from the LPGA Tour. “Now that I’m getting older, I’ve finally reflected that this is not going to be easy. I’m not just going to go out there and start winning and start getting a bunch of money. It’s going to be really hard. But it makes me want to work even harder to finish in the top of the money list.”

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