It’s 1979, and Karen Bahnsen is the first women’s golfer awarded an LSU scholarship. Golfing powerhouses like the University of Miami, Auburn University, University of Georgia and the University of Alabama had recruited her, but she shied away to throw on an LSU uniform.
There was only one problem: The LSU women’s golf team didn’t have a uniform.
“I’ll never forget,” Bahnsen said. “We had a team golf bag, and that’s about it. No uniforms. I remember us, being girls, wanting to have uniforms like everybody else, so we went on our own to the Student Union and bought matching shirts. Those were our first uniforms.”
That was the beginning. Now the head coach of the team she pioneered, Bahnsen is still swinging 29 years later.
Her team’s recent accomplishments have been outstanding, finishing third in the NCAA Division I Championship in both 2011 and 2012. Bahnsen guided Austin Ernst to an individual NCAA Championship win in 2011 and coached Tessa Teachman to third place in the 2012 NCAA Championship.
But her journey with LSU started much earlier. In fact, Bahnsen’s LSU career began before the NCAA even recognized women’s golf.
The LSU women’s golf team was governed by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women when it made its debut in 1979. At the time, the AIAW was one of the major advancements for women’s athletics on the collegiate level, but Bahnsen and her teammates did not receive the same scholarship benefits as their male counterparts.
“We weren’t funded, at the time, to eat at Broussard Cafeteria where the male athletes were allowed to eat,” Bahnsen said. “With AIAW, we had to pay for our own visits. But once we became part of the NCAA, that’s when things started to turn around.”
Bahnsen took no time in doing just that. The year after her golf career ended in 1984, she became the team’s head coach and was named Southeastern Conference coach of the year just two seasons later.
In her 29-year coaching span, she has led the Lady Tigers to 11 NCAA Championship appearances — three in the past four years — and one SEC title. But creating a talented team year after year was no easy task, especially in her earlier career when help was lacking.
“When I first started, for the first 15 years or so, it was just me recruiting,” Bahnsen said. “I didn’t have an assistant coach. And that was hard, especially when I had two little babies.”
That dedication led to her induction into the National Golf Coaches Hall of Fame in 2008. Still, after almost three decades of coaching, Bahnsen shies away from the accolades and spotlight and is most proud of an intangible reward.
“I feel really proud in trying to mentor these young ladies,” Bahnsen said. “I want to show them that they could do it all. It’s hard, but you can do it all.”
The LSU women’s golf program has come a long way since searching for uniforms to where they are now. Karen Bahnsen has been it’s backbone, and she’s still not finished.
“I fell in love with LSU as a first-year program,” Bahnsen said. “We’ve put it together and we’ve come a long way, but I still want to win the national championship since we’ve been so very close.”