Meet the Division II golfer who won 12 times, put Tampa on the map and earned her LPGA card for 2023

There was a time when Kiira Riihijarvi thought she might need an upgrade from her Division II digs. Ultimately, she wanted one thing: a better place to practice. Head coach Missey Jones, who runs the program at the University of Tampa, delivered on that request and Riihijarvi wound up staying five years, winning 12 times and earning a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.

“You can play professionally and play Division II,” Jones told her, noting the number of NFL players who make it from small schools.

It didn’t take long for Riihijarvi, 25, to prove Jones’ point. In her first full season on the Epson Tour, the Finnish player finished fourth on the money list to earn her LPGA card for 2023. She won once and placed in the top five in each of her last three starts.

“I very much enjoyed my time in Division II,” Riihijarvi told Golfweek. “Whenever I started college, I wasn’t the best player. It gave me the space to compete and play and keep getting better. I think it’s a very good option that a lot of people don’t think about.”

World Golf Hall of Famers Hollis Stacy and Peggy Kirk Bell were early examples of Division II players making a mark as both hailed from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. More recent Division II players who have reached the LPGA include Sandra Changkija from Nova Southeastern and Florida Southern’s Jackie Stoelting.

“The grass is greener where you water it,” said Jones.

There are two golf courses in Oulu, Finland, where Riihijarvi took up the game at a junior clinic at Virpiniemi Golf Club at age 9. Golf has exploded in Finland, she said, since the COVID-19 pandemic. Where Riihijarvi lives in the northern part of the country, the golf season lasts about five months.

The desire to play golf year-round led her to the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. Riihijarvi’s brother, Paavo, went with her to Rome to play soccer. Jones had a player from Sweden who attended Darlington, and when she got word about Riihijarvi, Jones asked a friend who coached high school golf in Georgia to give her a scouting report.

Word came back: “Oh, she’s going to be a player.”

Riihijarvi, who averaged 78 at the time and was just learning to speak English, went down for a visit and liked what she saw.

Xiaowen Yin of China (from left), Gabriella Then of USA, Yan Liu of China, Kiira Riihijarvi of Finland, Linnea Strom of Sweden, Gina Kim of USA, Celine Borge of Norway, Grace Kim of Australia and Hyo Joon Jang of Republic of Korea celebrate receiving their LPGA cards during the card ceremony following the final round of the Epson Tour Championship at the Champions course at LPGA International on October 09, 2022, in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Jones started the program from scratch at Tampa in 2010, and in 2017, Riihijarvi became the first player in Spartans history to earn a bid to the NCAA South Super Regional, which she won. Before she even left the parking lot at regionals, Riihijarvi vowed to come back with her team, which she did in 2019.

After the pandemic cut Tampa’s promising 2020 season short, Riihijarvi didn’t like the idea of her college career ending so abruptly. She decided to come back for a fifth season, with the goal of leading her team to its first NCAA Championship appearance.

With organized practices only held three times a week, Riihijarvi could set additional practices around her own specific goals. She came back sophomore year with a golf swing that could produce different ball-flights. There was a drive and a focus that bled into the rest of the team. Back home, she won multiple national amateur titles.

“There’s an inner something in her that’s different,” said Jones.

Riihijarvi led the Spartans to their first NCAA regional title in the spring of 2021, earning a spot in the national championship. Riihijarvi was named NCAA Division II National Player for a second consecutive year.

“I think I just kept getting better every year,” said Riihijarvi, who in four years cut nearly six strokes off her average. This weekend, Riihijarvi will work as an assistant coach for her alma mater at the Rollins Invitational.

Clockwise: Kiira Riihijarvi, Emily Montagnino, Emilie Bjorge, Sophia Cadavid, Heather Kipness, and head coach Missey Jones (courtesy photo)

Riihijarvi’s first LPGA event of the 2023 season won’t come until late March. She’s currently enjoying some well-earned time away from practice.

Jones talks a lot about the way the 5-foot-11-inch Riihijarvi walks – like a person who knows where she’s going. Assured, but never arrogant.

“People were going to buy into her work ethic, or they weren’t,” said Jones. Either way, it wasn’t going to impact Riihijarvi and her keen attention to detail.

Riihijarvi heads to the LPGA a prolific winner. She also has the added benefit of a player who has paved the way in Matilda Castren. Last year, Castren became the first player from Finland to win on the LPGA. She was also a key player in Europe’s 2021 Solheim Cup victory, going 3-1-0. A supportive Castren has already offered to help.

“I do think it’s a skill,” said Riihijarvi of winning. “It’s something you have to learn.”

Riihijarvi left Division II with an advanced degree in that, too.

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Story originally appeared on GolfWeek