Last year the Wildcats opened up their spring season at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic ranked 19th, and the team cruised to a stellar third-place finish.
This time around, the expectations are even higher.
“Our team is very capable of competing with anybody else at this point,” junior Kaitlin Park said. “If we really put it together, I wouldn’t be surprised if we win this tournament.”
It may sound brash, but Northwestern’s confidence is justified by its national standing, as the team currently sits at No. 7 in the country.
The team embarks on a trip to Rio Mar, Puerto Rico, on Sunday to compete in its spring season opener, once again at the three-day, 54-hole Lady Puerto Rico. The Cats will be up against nine other top-50 squads in the event, but only one (No. 4 Arkansas) can claim a higher ranking than NU.
Of course, rust may be a factor for the Cats in the tournament, and coach Emily Fletcher said shaking off that rust will be key. But most teams in the field will be fighting that same issue.
NU does have plenty of familiarity with the Rio Mar River Course, and that gives the team a useful scouting report ahead of the event.
“(The key here) I would think is making putts,” Fletcher said. “There will be some opportunities for birdies, and there are a few challenging holes … We’re going to make some bogeys but if we counteract them with birdies, that’ll be big, and that comes from big putts and the short game.”
The mandate for red numbers — specifically on the more-inviting back nine — may be a daunting task for most squads, but the Cats have already proven to be in elite company.
The No. 7 ranking speaks for itself and it comes from the results of an ultra-talented set. NU produced a stellar fall, one that included a win and a second-place finish in four events. The other two showings produced a fifth and a seventh, but those were an incredibly difficult pair of fields. Ultimately, NU beat nine current top-20 squads during the fall.
And the roster is stacked. The Cats possess six former top-30 recruits, spread out over years of acquiring blue-chip talent. As most tournaments (like the Lady Puerto Rico) only allow for five players’ scores to count, that has meant NU leaving one of these talents off the team roster.
For the fall, that was freshman Sarah Cho, the No. 4 recruit in the country for the incoming class.
“(Sarah) didn’t really struggle much in the fall, we just had five players compete well in the fall, so it was tough for her to crack in there,” Fletcher said. “And that’s a good thing, it means we’re playing well. I expect any of our five or six could lead us any given week.”
Cho, though, will be in the team-counting lineup of five for the first time in her college career at Puerto Rico, with sophomore Kacie Komoto coming down as an individual rather than in her usual perch as a starter.
Beyond the obvious excitement of a first career start, Cho said that she has belief in her game right now, a product of her winter work. Cho was able to find improvement in her backswing with good vibes that translated into better short game and putting performance.
She still has to prove this progression in the heat of battle, but the team has taken two trips down to Florida in the winter, and Cho believes that those were instrumental in preparing for the all-important putting performance in Puerto Rico.
“From what I’ve heard, the greens are slower at (the Rio Mar River Course),” Cho said. “When we went to practice in Florida, those greens were slow too, so we’re thinking that those surfaces and the ones in Puerto Rico are about the same.”
The remaining quartet can take mixed feelings of confidence from fall results. Junior Suchaya Tangkamolprasert and freshman Hannah Kim were the big risers, with five top-12 finishes between the duo, along with six top-two finishes among the NU lineup. Both are also currently ranked top-35 in the country as individuals.
Park produced three top-25s and a team-high finish in one event, but was hurt by inconsistency, including a mediocre T69 showing to close out the fall. Senior Hana Lee had similar consistency issues, only the lows were more frequent, with just one top-25 to her name in four starts.
Collectively, though, this added up to the Cats’ current high standing.
Park also betrayed excitement in her winter practice, citing an especially improved short game, along with swing changes starting to coalesce.
The Cats are taking a relaxed approach to results in Puerto Rico, despite the pressure a high ranking can bring.
The chase for birdies in Rio Mar can be a risky venture and spell major doom if executed poorly. But Park feels the squad has the right mix of calm and fight to do well on the friendly-but-treacherous Rio Mar layout.
“We have to be patient. The course can get to you because there’s a lot of holes that you can be aggressive (which can bring trouble),” Park said. “But we should be aggressive because we have been training really hard indoors, so I know we can harness that when we need to. All of our girls are capable of scoring well on this course.”
Email: [email protected]