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When Ellie Slama tees off at this weekend’s NCAA National Championship, she will become just the fifth Oregon State woman to play in the tournament as an individual. It is a tremendous achievement for a player who is in the midst a breakout sophomore season.

Slama, currently ranked as the No. 27 player in the nation, will begin first-round play at 10:50 a.m. (Pacific Time) Friday at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

One of 12 players to qualify as an individual, she will test herself against the best collegiate players in the country.

And yet, it won’t even be the most significant thing she has done this year.

Growing up as an obsessive golf fan, Slama followed the Masters closely — always dreaming of what it might be like to tee off at the legendary Augusta National Golf Club.

For so long it was just a dream; no woman had ever played a competitive round at the course. That is, until it was revealed before the 2018 Masters that the site would play host to a tournament featuring the top 72 amateur women in the world.

The announcement had major ramifications on the collegiate golf landscape as Slama and hundreds of other players set their sites on a qualification spot.

“Everybody was just shocked,” Slama said. “It inspired so many people to stay amateur and work harder and get themselves in that top ranking. If you look at it, like all of the girls who played in that who are seniors in college and are at the level where they went to Q-School the summer before, they all waited to go pro until after that tournament.”

To qualify, Slama needed to lock down a top-30 spot in the world rankings. She did just that after a stellar fall campaign, and in January she received an official invitation from the Augusta National Golf Club Board of Governors.

The opening two rounds of the tournament were held at the Champions Retreat Golf Club, and Slama needed to make the 36-hole cut to actually play competition rounds at Augusta. She came up short of that mark, shooting 6-over 78, dashing any hopes of qualifying. But she and the rest of the 72 tournament participants were still guaranteed a practice round at Augusta on April 5.

“That was probably the most incredible experience of my life,” Slama said. “It was crazy. You’re just playing holes and you start to think about it and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. All of the Sunday tournaments here and, like, Tiger Woods has hit a chip from here and just all of these different situations that you see on TV and in pictures. You see all of the flowers and the azaleas and everything and they look so perfect. Nothing is out of place — it’s all exactly how it looks on TV.”

Going toe-to-toe with the top golfers in the world has sharpened Slama’s game and she will enter this weekend with as much big-tournament experience as any player in the field. Couple that with a natural sense of calm, and those who watch Slama play every day aren’t surprised that she has achieved so much this season.

“Her demeanor around golf — she’s just very chill about it,” Slama’s roommate and Oregon State teammate Amanda Minni said. “She doesn't take anything — like, if she plays a bad round it doesn’t beat her down for days. She just says, ‘Oh, it’s OK’ and takes it as a learning opportunity.”

Slama attended nearby South Salem High and emerged as a top talent in the state early in her junior career. It was almost a forgone conclusion that she would spend her collegiate years in Corvallis — both of her parents graduated from Oregon State and her brother currently attends the school.

Competing in the Pac-12, Oregon State has traditionally found itself struggling to keep pace with some of the most talented teams in the nation. This season, seven Pac-12 teams finished in the NCAA top-25 rankings and 10 players cracked the top-25 rankings as individuals.

But Oregon State has begun to narrow the gap and finished the season as the No. 31 team in the country. Slama has set the tone for a Beavers squad that nearly qualified for nationals as a team this season and isn’t intimidated by the traditional golf powerhouses that populate the conference.

“She was bred to compete,” Oregon State junior Nicole Schroeder said of Slama. “She knows that she’s good and that she can hang tight and she doesn’t let any of those really top players intimidate her. She’s like, ‘Yeah, you might be ranked better than me. But I can still beat you today.’ She has that competitive drive that I think you really need if you want to be successful.”

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