A bond formed early on the golf course

Bernard Schwartz

Mom and dad waited. Dinner waited. The sun refused to, but that didn’t matter to the two sisters.

The setting sun was a passing image, one realized in between chips or putts or drives. Elizabeth and Emily Gilley would look up to see how perfectly they’d just drilled the ball, but be forced to go on feel after outlasting the light.

Sometimes it annoyed Linda Gilley, with the meal made and cooling, the two empty chairs where her daughters should be sitting. Playtime usually ended when the sun went down; every child understood this.

But not Elizabeth, who played golf for Northwestern until she graduated in 1998, and not Emily, now a sophomore on the team.

“We tried to keep the both of them from starting too early, but they both seemed to really love it,” says Tom Gilley, who played at Iowa State. “They played a lot together.”

The Gilley’s house lined one of the fairways of the Flossmoor Country Club, where the sisters would play almost every day after school.

Rain or shine. Day or night.

“She started when I started,” Elizabeth says. “It was fun for me to have someone to drag out on the course, to give me a run for my money.”

They wouldn’t leave the chipping green or end practice until both of them holed a shot. Sometimes it took hours. Sometimes they had to listen for the rattling of the pin. Sometimes the sprinklers came on.

“They’re both very practice-driven,” says NU golfer Karen England, who, as a freshman, played with Elizabeth and now, as a senior, plays with Emily. “They both spend hours practicing, until there isn’t any light. I think that’s how they were brought up.”

When the young girls with the cut-down clubs became the young ladies with the scary short games, their father sent them to David Ogilvie, a golf pro.

“They both had total devotion,” Ogilvie says. “They both seemed to play like they loved the game like no other thing in the world.”

Her daughters were serious, and Linda Gilley learned to wait, as the younger Emily was forced to do. Four years is a lot of time to give up to your rival. Elizabeth was always bigger, stronger, more mature.

“Emily was always looking up to Libby,” Ogilvie says. “Libby was always better. Libby went off to college first, but Emily was getting pretty good while still in high school.”

Emily won Illinois state titles in 1996 and 1997. In ’97, she broke the scoring record she had set the year before.

“On the last day of the tournament, Emily sank a birdie putt for the team title and the individual title,” Tom Gilley says. “Elizabeth made sure she was there.”

At the time, Elizabeth was a senior for the Wildcats, and that was a fun autumn for the Gilley family. On Oct. 15, 1997, Tom and Linda went to separate tournaments.

Tom went to Naperville to watch Emily in the state sectionals. And Linda accompanied Elizabeth to Lake Shore Country Club for the final round of the Wildcat Invitational. Both daughters fought their way into sudden-death playoffs. Both won.

For Elizabeth, a win at the Wildcat was her first and last as a college golfer. For Emily, the sectional marked the beginning of her second title run. The sisters shared, as Linda Gilley remembers, “that awful, cold, rainy, windy day.”

The weather never did get in the way.

Aside from their backyard battles, Elizabeth and Emily never competed against each other. Emily was always coming into an age division when Elizabeth was going out of it.

The sisters were never teammates at NU. Elizabeth graduated the year before Emily enrolled.

As a freshman, Emily became the first female golfer in NU history to qualify for the NCAA East Regionals.

“When Elizabeth first started, Northwestern was at the bottom of the Big Ten,” Tom Gilley says. “Now they’re competing with the top teams in the conference.”

Emily chose NU because of the academics, the rising golf program and because Evanston is near Flossmoor.

But she also chose it because of Elizabeth.

“I saw how much she loved the school,” Emily says. “I saw the great balance of academics and golf, and I just kind of followed in her footsteps.”

As a sophomore, Emily leads the Cats with an average of 77.15 per round. In March she won the GTE “Mo”morial, joining her sister as one of only three female golfers to ever win at NU.

After a tough autumn in which Emily never finished higher than 20th, she has a win this spring, a second at the Midwest Classic and a fourth at the Hawkeye Invitational.

“I had a great experience over Christmas,” Emily says. “I had a very rough fall, but playing over the break with Elizabeth gave me a sense of loving the game and loving the competition again.”

Emily finished sixth at the Silver Belle in Phoenix in December. That same month, she lost to Elizabeth, when the sisters played together for the first time in more than a year.

“We’re on different levels now,” Emily says. “Elizabeth’s concentrating on her job (at Apple computers), and I’m in the college atmosphere.”

That atmosphere is about to get more intense. This weekend NU competes in the Big Ten championships in Madison, Wis., looking to solidify its chances of making the NCAA regionals for the first time.

As they’ve done for almost every one of their daughters’ tournaments, Linda and Tom will travel to Wisconsin to watch Emily play. Elizabeth never had the chance to play in the NCAAs when she was at NU, but said she’ll be there if the Cats make it.

She’ll be there this weekend too, watching with her parents and once again walking the fairways with her sister.

“They have the perfect attitude,” Ogilvie says. “Always shiny and new — the perfect golf specimens.”