Twice before at the NCAA Regionals, the Wildcats had cracked the formula: Put the team well behind the curve and then fight back to prosperity. But, even for them, this weekend’s results were astounding.
Needing to place in the top six at the NCAA Raleigh Regional to qualify for the NCAA Championships, Northwestern dumped itself in 11th position after 18 holes only to rocket up the leaderboard each of the next two days. The team eventually tied for second Saturday — eight shots behind winner then-No. 4 South Carolina.
In a matter of 36 holes, the Cats went from well beyond the brink to cruising past the cut line.
“This team is impressing (assistant coach) Beth (Miller) and I with their ability to compete with their backs against the walls,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “The biggest difference from earlier this spring is that these girls are not playing scared at the end of rounds.”
NU is quickly proving its mini-slump in early April is in the past.
Over 54 holes and three days at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course, the Cats beat 11 top-50 teams — including No. 7 LSU and then-No. 12 Mississippi State — en route to the team’s third-straight trip to NCAA Championships.
In 2013, NU faltered to 10th place through 36 holes at Regionals only to charge back into sixth to make it among the top eight qualifying for Nationals. Last year, the Cats were in 10th after the first day in a top-eight field and used a hot second round to cushion them enough for another trip to the NCAA Championships.
But in this trip, the Cats dug themselves their worst hole yet at Regionals with the 11th place start. Aside from senior Hana Lee’s opening 73, none of the other starters portended signs of future fireworks — the remaining quartet all shot 75 or worse on Thursday and combined for just two birdies.
Bogeys abounded and the course’s tricky greens, tucked pins and weird bounces were giving the Cats fits.
All of this primed conditions for a coach’s rant to light a fire under her squad — maybe call out some players, yell her pupils into a fury.
But Fletcher had other ideas.
“It’s not like I scolded them or anything,” Fletcher said. “We had a really productive practice after that first round. … Once we left the golf course, I felt the players were done with that round and ready for the next day.”
And apparently, the coach read her team right.
“After the first day, we weren’t too psyched out about being in 11th place,” freshman Hannah Kim said. “We were all confident we were going to make it back up to the top six.”
The lackluster day one was followed by a fiery Day Two, in which NU rose to fifth behind the third-best round of the day. In position to qualify, the Cats nailed 14 birdies in Saturday’s final round to tie for the best team score of the day.
Fletcher pointed to better putting and short game in facilitating the turnaround, along with improved management of the course’s tougher, more wind-exposed holes.
No Cats golfer truly stood out — Lee tied for ninth and was the team’s best finish. Junior Suchaya Tangkamolprasert and sophomore Kacie Komoto were next best with a tie for 18th.
The best mirror of NU’s upward trajectory was Kim, who admitted to pressuring herself in an opening-day 78.
She mellowed her demeanor and followed with a 75. Kim flourished at the finish with a four-birdie 71 that placed her tied for 22nd.
“The first two days, I was having a really hard time with my speed control,” Kim said. “But on the last day, I had the greens figured out and that helped me a lot with my birdies.”
The Cats, as usual in recent years, are playing some of their best golf at the right time. Fletcher said there was no magic formula to that, and pointed to a slow cultivation of good player habits.
And after one of the team’s most impressive performances under Fletcher’s tenure, NU has no shortage of confidence for Nationals.
“Our team is in a good place right now,” Lee said. “We have a pretty good advantage going into nationals from this performance. Finishing second here, we know we’re good enough to play against any team in the country.”
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