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A new belief and a fresh mentality: Josh Kirkham’s rise for Bradley men’s golf

Josh Kirkham poses with his trophy after tying for first place at the Derek Dolenc Invitational. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

When you fall, it leaves you no other choice but to get back up and keep going. The story of senior golfer Josh Kirkham is a testament to this lesson.

Hailing from Blue Island, IL in the south suburbs of Chicago, Kirkham arrived at Bradley with a plan and a winning mindset. As an athlete, Kirkham was ready to take his golf game to the next level, but things don’t always go according to plan.

“I thought I was going to be effective [and] be someone that could really help the team, but I struggled,” Kirkham said. “It was a tough adjustment and way more than I thought it was going to be. I guess my expectations got shattered.”

Despite those shattered expectations, Kirkham will be the first to tell you that his physical game took no hit. The club still swung the same way and the ball bounced just like it did in high school, but the biggest obstacle was Kirkham’s mindset.

“It creates some heated conversations every once in a while, but that’s the nice thing about our relationship,” head coach Jeff Roche said. “We’re open with each other enough that he’ll give it back to me at times.”

A golfer that struggles in his first year on the Hilltop is nothing new for Roche. He tends to find that scores seem to jump upward when entering college. Living on your own, keeping up with homework, adjusting to a new life and being away from hometown friends are all contributing factors that Roche says affects his golfers.

Kirkham explained that all of Roche’s points hit him pretty hard, but if one were looking for the struggles on paper, finding it would be especially difficult.

Through his first two seasons for the Braves, Kirkham finished second on the team in stroke average and his junior year ended with him leading the squad at 74.07. The drop of three points through his first three years was just a glimpse of what was to come.

“It was a learning experience [and] something that some kids at big schools don’t get the opportunity to do,” Kirkham said. “Without those first two years, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

As much of a mental game as golf is, fine tuning the physical and technical parts of it will always be what golfers spend much of their time working on. In college, Roche clarifies that that’s not always the case.

“Josh has worked really hard to get his skill sets, and he’s worked really hard on yardage and his short game,” Roche said. “Not every college kid is going to be willing to do [that]. Only the elite ones are going to do that.”

So, for all the success that Kirkham found on the course in his first three years, it still doesn’t explain the substantial jump that he’s made in year four.

This season, the senior has not only led the team, but he has set school and personal records just three tournaments in. Kirkham currently sports a remarkable 70.22 stroke average and has carded a 69 or lower in four of the nine rounds he’s played. 

In addition, his second-round 66 at the Derek Dolenc Invitational tied the school record for the lowest 18-hole performance and the 67 he scored in the third round made him the first Bradley golfer with two rounds of 67 or lower in the same tournament.

Those accomplishments, his three top-10 finishes this season and a tie for first a week ago all point to a new Kirkham — one that has stopped questioning himself and is swinging with a fresh mentality.

“My belief and my self-belief really only improved by this summer,” Kirkham said. “When I step on the golf course, the first tee shot [that I take], I forget about everything and I know that I’m a great player and that I’m the guy to beat.”

Confessing that he is still a “results-oriented” player, Kirkham hopes that the scores of this early season will continue throughout the year and possibly a fifth year down the road. For now, the senior is taking it one shot at a time.

“Now he’s confident in how he plays,” Roche said. “He doesn’t have to be anybody else; he can be Josh Kirkham, and [the result] is pretty good.”

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