Florida greens more hospitable for University of Tampa’s Finnish golfer

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TAMPA — Living in Oulu, Finland — where the average temperature is 36.9 degrees and there are about 145 days of snow every year — doesn’t lend itself to playing golf.

You’ve got to want it.

Kiira Riihijarvi always did.

"The summers are very nice, but most of the time you are all bundled up, not able to practice, having to go to an indoor facility," Riihijarvi said. "I loved the game and always kind of figured out what I need to do (to improve). It grew on me and now, here I am."

In a great spot.

Riihijarvi, a sophomore All-American at the University of Tampa, is building upon last season, when she was an individual champion at the NCAA Division II Regional and ninth place at the national tournament.

She’s off to a good start this fall, finishing first in the Saint Leo Invitational (she shot 4-under 140) and helping UT women’s golf, a seventh-year program, to its first national ranking (25th in the Golfstat NCAA Division II poll).

"Kiira told me at the regionals last year, ‘I’m not coming back here by myself next year,’?" UT coach Missey Jones said. "She said, ‘We’re bringing someone else. And before I graduate, we’re bringing the whole team.’

"We’ve come a long way for a young program. They have great attitudes and they are realizing their dreams. That’s true for Kiira, too. It is all coming together for her. For us, too. We’ve had some good fortune, but I think good fortune comes to you when you work hard at something."

A series of fortuitous circumstances led to Riihijarvi’s arrival at UT.

Four years ago, Hanna Grevelius, a native of Sweden, came to UT women’s golf from the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., a boarding school known for its golf and soccer programs. What happened next was pure coincidence. Grevelius, on vacation with her family in Tampa, visited the UT campus and loved it.

Two years ago, the Darlington soccer coach and Grevelius independently told Jones about a golfer from Finland who was new at Darlington. Jones asked a Georgia coaching friend to watch Riihijarvi play and the scouting report was concise:

"Get her now. Sign her now."

When Riihijarvi visited, she asked Jones to see the courses where UT practiced. Jones was impressed with that aptitude and attitude. Riihijarvi saw a fit.

The rest has been UT women’s golf history.

"I knew nothing really about the recruiting process and how it all worked," Riihijarvi said. "I just knew UT had a good golf program and coach. There was a great business school. The city was nice. I really liked it."

And she still does.

After an outstanding freshman season, Jones began hearing some whispers.

"People asked me if I was scared of losing Kiira to a Division I school," Jones said. "I asked her about it and she said, ‘Why would I do that? I love it here.’?"

Riihijarvi said the true culture shock was going from Finland to Georgia, where everything was different and she struggled with the restrictions of a boarding school. The transition to Tampa has been easy, complete with lots of sunshine, beach trips, college freedom and her improving golf game.

Still, there have been adjustments. She knows of only one other Finnish student at UT. She misses the chocolate and bread of her homeland, but has quickly taken to Tampa’s ice cream and frozen yogurt.

At the same time, she’s accustomed to sounding out her name for new friends. It’s Kee-rah Ree-hee-jarvey.

"I am loving my time here," Riihijarvi said. "I’m not sure I knew golf could take me to places like this. I’ve really learned a lot and met a lot of great people since leaving home."

Back in Finland, Riihijarvi was the product of an athletic family. Her father, Heikki, was a professional hockey player in Finland and France, and her mother, Johanna, competes in equestrian events. She first learned golf from her father and quickly concluded the game was for her.

In recent years, she knew that golf was much more than a hobby. That led her to the United States and what has become a promising opportunity in college golf.

"Golf can be hard sometimes, but I love it," Riihijarvi said. "Every day is different. You could shoot a 68 one day and an 80 the next and you’re not sure what happened.

"I have my frustrations. But I’m like that for just one second and then it’s ‘Let’s go to the range.’ I feel confident when I play from all the practice. I feel fortunate to be doing this because I just love golf."

In all kinds of weather.

 
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