Daily file photo by Nathan Richards
Spring Sports Guide
The hype is building around Northwestern as the golf program methodically builds itself up to elite national status.
“A lot of articles are saying that we are contending for a national title, and I think it’s great that people are saying those things,” junior Kaitlin Park said. “But in my opinion, being patient and rooting for each other is the focus.”
That’s easier said than done for the Wildcats, a team that produced back-to-back top-15 finishes at NCAA Championships the past two seasons after making it to the tournament only once before.
And for a third consecutive season, NU may have its most talented group in school history. Six NU golfers are former top-30 recruits — in a sport where only five starting spots are usually up for grabs — and the Cats can boast a No. 7 national ranking.
Such success from a northern school might be surprising, but the Cats have made it a mission throughout the golfing program to sell recruits on the benefits of cold winter conditions.
For coach Emily Fletcher in particular, building the talent pool and the internal ambition that comes with these higher achievers has been paramount in the uptick.
“We’ve had success recruiting deep,” she said. “It’s not enough for us to get one or two really good players, but to have five or six competitive players. (Coach) Beth (Miller) and I are also very proud of the culture, with players taking it on themselves and working hard and pushing harder and with how competitive they are within the team.”
The postseason format will change this season. Twenty-four teams will receive invitations to NCAA Championships per usual, but that group will then compete over 72 holes for eight slots in a match-play final.
A year after announcing a goal for a top-10 finish at NCAAs, Fletcher and Co. are predictably targeting that top-eight group.
And the team has plenty of collective firepower to do it.
The recruiting rankings speak for themselves, but the results have proven this top talent has translated to the college level.
Park and senior Hana Lee are both former First Team All-Big Ten selections. Sophomore Kacie Komoto was entrenched in the middle of the lineup throughout the fall. Junior Suchaya Tangkamolprasert stepped up with big-time performances on a couple of occasions in the fall. Freshman Hannah Kim possibly solidified herself as the team’s best player a mere four events into her college career.
That sixth talent, who only saw individual action in the fall, was freshman Sarah Cho, who actually welcomed stepping aside in her opening months at NU.
“I would love to have been a part of the top five, but playing as an individual was great, especially because my game wasn’t in great shape,” Cho said. “My coaches and I were trying to figure out what was going on with my long game. Everything was kind of not tidy, so we worked on tightening everything and my feel. And we started from scratch almost.”
Cho finally got the start for NU at this week’s Lady Puerto Rico Classic, the Cats’ opening tournament of the spring season. The team finished fourth in the event, behind No. 4 Arkansas, No. 20 LSU and No. 33 Iowa State, a less than stellar performance to begin the campaign.
The key for NU going forward, if it hopes to fulfill its top-eight dreams, will be how it performs closer to the hole.
“The determining factor will be our short game, our pitching and wedges and ability to make putts,” Fletcher said. “Doing that will lead to better scoring and more consistent scoring.”
The performance in Puerto Rico was actually not indicative of NU’s norm. Kim’s final-round 68 catapulted her to second place in the event, while the lower part of the lineup lagged behind.
If anything, the opposite has usually been true of NU this season and in past years — the scores for Nos. 1-5 are all good, solid results, but a standout is missing.
After the first tournament of the fall, no Cats golfer finished higher than eighth in any event. Fletcher chalked that up to the strength of the fields NU played in the fall, and has no worries over any perceived lack of an ace.
Whatever the case, confidence is with the Cats in spades, and as long as they maintain that inner determination, the sky is the limit.
“Our girls are such hard workers,” Park said. “The one thing they have to do is for them not to get too down on themselves after one bad round. We are all very critical of ourselves because we all care so much. I am very confident we will make nationals. Believing in each other is key.”
Email: [email protected]