Women’s Golf: Northwestern falls short of back-to-back Big Ten titles


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Elizabeth Szokol opened with an 80 at the Big Ten Championships but bounced back with a pair of 74s in the final two rounds. The sophomore finished tied for 13th for the event, and Northwestern placed third.

Kevin Casey, Assistant Sports Editor

The expectations have been high for Northwestern this season, and the team has mostly met them. But a Big Ten title defense was not in the cards.

A new year and a new course meant a different result, as the Wildcats placed third at Big Ten Championships this weekend following a win at the event last year.

Although the tournament didn’t disavow that NU is one of the Big Ten elite, all efforts were pointed toward a victory.

The No. 19 Cats were the highest-ranked team in the field and, after 54 holes of play, ended up 10 strokes behind No. 27 Ohio State and No. 25 Michigan State.

Coach Emily Fletcher pointed to the team’s play over the first 36 holes as the culprit in preventing a Cats victory.

“Those first couple of rounds, we spotted them a few too many shots,” Fletcher said. “In those rounds we lost quite a few shots with short game and putting.”

Fletcher wasn’t wrong to point to the initial 36 holes.

In the 2013 version of Big Tens, at the Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort, the Cats raced out to the first-day lead and remained steady over the final 36 holes on the way to victory.

This year the conference tournament was played on the Pete Dye track at French Lick, and there was never the threat of a repeat storyline. NU was only six strokes back after Friday’s first round, but sat in fifth place. The team moved up to third the following day, yet dropped to 10 shots off the pace.

For a moment on Sunday, it appeared NU might pull off a spirited comeback. In the middle of the back nine, the Cats were enjoying easily the best round of the day at 1 over par and moved within three strokes of the lead. But the defending champions would drop eight shots over the closing holes in solidifying third place.

“At the beginning of the day I thought that if we shot even par, we would have a chance,” Fletcher said. “I wasn’t surprised that we made that charge, we were hanging in there and playing well at that point. But I knew it was going to be critical that we finished strong and not commit any unforced errors, and then we had a couple of three-putts here or there that took the wind out of our sails.”

When it came to the individuals, NU deviated from its regularly-scheduled results. Yes, the No. 2-5 players all congregated within seven shots, but this bunching was further down on the leaderboard than usual, mostly placing in the 30s.

The No. 1 also separated from the pack, with junior Hana Lee opening in consecutive 75s to jump four ahead of her next closest teammate. On the final day, four birdies over the first 12 holes staked Lee out to a 3-under start, and with only two bogies coming in, she posted a 70, the second-best round of the day, to finish solo third for the event.

Apparently, though, Lee wasn’t that impressed with her golf.

“I played well overall,” Lee said. “I didn’t play great, but I stayed patient and did the best I could.”

Whatever the case, Lee was eight shots and ten places ahead of sophomore Elizabeth Szokol. Fellow sophomore Kaitlin Park uncharacteristically placed fifth among the six NU starters with a tie for 37th.

The week was only a slight setback for the Cats, but last year the team experienced no such late season regression on the way to a record-breaking campaign.

Still, Fletcher is convinced in this team’s ability, calling this collection of players an “incredible talent.”

And the players believe too.

“We definitely could have done better but we are still right there with those other teams and have a real good chance at regionals and nationals,” Szokol said. “We’ve been playing really well the whole year, so we have a good chance of playing well at regionals and nationals.”

The Cats will be the No. 7 seed at the NCAA West Regional, played from May 8 to 10 at the Tumble Creek Golf Club in Suncadia, Wash. A top-eight finish will ensure NU a return trip to the NCAA Championships, where the team placed 15th last year.

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Twitter: @KevinCasey19