Women’s Golf: Wildcats finish 10th at NCAA Championships

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Women’s Golf

The Wildcats couldn’t quite reach their final destination, but they still made history in the process.

No. 14 Northwestern secured its highest-ever finish on Monday at NCAA Championships, placing 10th in a 24-team field at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida, after placing 15th back-to-back at Nationals in 2013 and 2014. The Cats cruised past the 54-hole cut that chopped the field to the top 15, sitting in 10th and hanging onto that spot in a treacherous final round.

For the first time in women’s golf, NCAA Championships had a match play component, with the top eight teams at the end of 72 stroke play holes advancing into the head-to-head format. In that regard NU fell agonizingly short, coming in a mere four shots worse than eighth-place Washington.

For a team that entered Nationals gunning for one of those coveted slots from an underdog position, the tone appeared it would be of the downbeat variety.

Instead, NU struck the opposite cord.

“It’s all really positive,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “Going into this event, our goal was to control our own destiny in the race for the eight on the Monday. And we were certainly in position and had a good opportunity out there.”

The cheery attitude made sense in light of a program that continues to climb on the national stage, and may have a claim to elite status following a third-consecutive robust showing at NCAA Championships.

“Your goal is to make it to match play and you come up short and you start thinking ‘Oh, what could you have done better,’” Fletcher said. “And we talked about that and we emphasized just how far our program has come even in the last three years.”

The Cats did indeed have a chance to control their fate down the stretch, as NU was one shot out of eighth place with nine holes to play Monday. It was also quite a journey to get there.

NU fell a bit into recent starting woes on Friday and Saturday, plopping down to a tie for 15th during a delayed first round that bled over two days. Displaying the energy ignited a month ago, the Cats surged up during the second round and by its conclusion on Sunday morning, sat in a tie for seventh place.

Still, even at that point everything was taking its toll. Nevermind constant delays — the weather was so hot and humid all week that one player jokingly crouched in a full-sized freezer to escape the soaring temperatures.

The wind was also pretty persistent throughout, and those multi-tiered green complexes Fletcher keyed on ahead of the event were more difficult than anyone could ever imagine.

“This may have been the toughest course I’ve played in my life,” junior Suchaya Tangkamolprasert said. “I did not expect the putting surfaces to have this much slope; if you put it into the wrong area of the green, you were basically screwed.”

And that was from the leading Cats player through two rounds. Fletcher noted that the team at times failed to minimize their mistakes, but that even the prudent play out to 30-40 feet could easily lead to three putts.

Through 36 holes, the Cats had collectively carded 19 birdies along with 15 double bogeys or worse.

Yet NU fought on.

The Cats dropped to 10th through 54 holes but found themselves in that tantalizing position ahead of the final nine.

In the aftermath, Fletcher commended her team’s ability to conserve energy, stay hydrated and remain focused, a trio that would serve the Cats well as the interminable week wore on.

There were several examples of this. Freshman Hannah Kim opened in a demoralizing 86-84 but turned it around with a 74-76 finish that still left her in a tie for 76th but gave the team important counting scores during the final two rounds.

“The week was very disappointing at first,” Kim said. “But I got more comfortable with the humidity and the heat, and then with the greens I was able to get my speed down, and I focused more on my putting than the shots into the green and that worked out.”

Sophomore Kacie Komoto pieced together a 73 and a 74 in her second and fourth rounds respectively for a tie for 29th.

But, as usual, nobody embraced the carnage more than Tangkamolprasert.

“I don’t know why, but when it’s harder, I think more about each shot and stay in the present more,” she said. “It’s more fun this way to me, it’s challenging and I get more satisfaction out of success in these conditions.”

The junior relied on a killer short game in a rousing tie for 10th which netted her the highest NCAA Championships finish among the Cats for the third consecutive year.

Alas, it wasn’t enough to reach the match play.

NU made some late birdies but mixed them in with just enough higher numbers to place outside the cut. The Cats started their rounds on the back nine, and Fletcher said the team simply did not make enough birdies on that side, specifically on the par-5s.

She said it also didn’t help that the wind died down late, so the teams who played the back nine later got more shots at birdie.

The Cats lose senior Hana Lee, who tied for 73rd, next season, and Fletcher waxed about her contribution to the program’s rise.

Otherwise, every significant player returns. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kim, rather than resting on her laurels, is focusing on turning her string of top finishes this spring into wins next season through a lower pressure approach.

It’s easy to see then why the Cats weren’t fretting over a missed opportunity at match play.

“I wouldn’t say we played our best golf out there, but everyone fought hard down the stretch,” Tangkamolprasert said. “Just seeing that I could totally see us in the match play next year given the team we have and the confidence we have in each other. That should bring out our best golf a little more.”

This post was updated at 1:49 a.m. Thursday.

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