Rusty NU prepared to spring into season

When freshman Elizabeth Burden signed a letter of intent to play for the Northwestern women’s golf team, the Lake Forest native knew what kind of weather to expect. She knew that Evanston, where the winters outlast the summers, was not an ideal place to play golf.

As Burden’s older teammates have learned, the Wildcats are forced into hibernation every winter when the snow falls and the grass dies.

Sure, the Gleacher Center — NU’s state-of-the-art indoor golf facility — makes the months of not playing easier to handle, but the rust that accumulates on the Cats’ golf games is tough to shake come spring.

NU practices in the winter, but the work takes place on fake grass, hitting mats and putting greens. And while the sand in the indoor bunker is real — as real as the Cats’ winter workouts — the wedge shots are simulated and so is the competition.

Their swings may be as technically refined as ever, but in terms of tournament preparation, NU tends to struggle in the early spring.

After three tournaments this spring, NU, which was ranked as high as 14th in the fall, is now ranked 29th in the Golfweek poll. The Cats played two tournaments in March, finishing third at both the GTE “MO”morial and the Waterlefe/USF Invitational and taking fifth at the Midwest Classic in February.

“We’ve definitely been rusty,” Burden said. “It’s hard going from not playing to playing again in tournaments. But we’re getting back into it. We just have to play our way back. Tournaments are a lot different than practicing indoors.”

Added senior Karen England: “There’s nothing like playing and getting into the rhythm of actually playing. The more tournaments, the better.”

At the “MO”morial in Houston, Emily Gilley shot an 8-over 224 to lead the Cats and the rest of the field, winning her first tournament and helping NU and her struggling teammates to a third-place finish.

“It was a tough weekend,” said Burden, who tied for 47th. “Gilley played well, but no one else did.”

Both Christie Hermes and Colleen Kiely tied for 16th with a 20-over 236. And England shot a 242, good for 45th.

At the Invitational, the Cats didn’t play much better. NU spent Spring Break in Florida, still trying to shake off the winter rust and once again finishing third. Gilley, England and Christie Hermes led the Cats, tying for 12th with 15-over 231s. After leading NU in its last two tourneys, Gilley is starting to regain her freshman form after a mediocre fall season.

“She’s even stronger than she was last year,” England said. “She knows the Big Ten courses. She now knows the ins and outs of college golf, and I expect her to continue to play well for us this spring.”

Gilley’s resurgence is encouraging. She and Burden, who led the Cats in scoring this fall, head a well-balanced team of young talent and experienced upperclassmen. And depth is not a problem.

“We’re all so capable,” Burden said. “It’s just a matter of who does it. I think we have a lot of depth. We can all shoot low scores.”

But NU must prove Burden correct on the course in tournament play. The Cats must apply all they learned indoors this winter outdoors this spring. Michigan State won the Invitational — its second win in as many tournaments — and with NU’s cold-weather conference rivals playing so well so early, the Cats can no longer blame the winter.

When they played in Florida, Burden got a glimpse of the weather she missed growing up in Illinois.

And after Michigan State scorched the competition for a 27-stroke victory, the Cats saw what must be done.

“It’s great to be able to go somewhere and play golf in such good weather,” Burden said. “I’ve never been able to do that during this time of the year. Hitting off mats just isn’t the same.”