It was at this time last year, the Kentucky women’s golf team was in search of its breakthrough moment – a tournament championship to underscore the direction the coaches and players thought the program was heading.
Fast forward one year later to this season’s edition of the Bettie Lou Evans Invitational championship, which UK won this weekend for the second year in a row, and it’s clear the Wildcats are no longer in search of those program-defining moments of validation.
They now expect to be in the mix for a championship every time they take the course.
After cruising to the 2019 Bettie Lou title on Sunday at the University Club of Kentucky in Lexington with a 15-shot victory over Rutgers, the runner-up, the Wildcats have checked off a number of historic milestones since breaking through the glass ceiling at least year’s event:
· Back-to-back Bettie Lou Evans Invitational championships for the first time since consecutive wins in 1996 and 1997
· The first multi-win season since 1997-98 (Kentucky won its season-opening event at the Minnesota Invitational)
· Three team tournament championships in a year’s time
· The first back-to-back titles in the same season since 1990-91 when UK would go on to win a school-record four tournaments
And although the Wildcats fell just short of winning individual medalist honors for a third straight season (Grace Rose shared honors in 2017 and Leonie Bettel won in 2018) UK has won four individual tournament titles in the last year with a number of top 10-finishes, including three more Sunday.
The Wildcats finished at 5-under par overall after a final-round 287. The 859 just missed the 54-hole school record set last year at the 2018 Bettie Lou by a stroke.
Kentucky head coach Golda Borst, who alongside assistant Brian May, has orchestrated the recent revival, noted the process it’s taken to get to this point.
“It hasn’t changed overnight,” Borst said. “The last two years, me and Brian sat down and really talked about, ‘OK, where are we right now and what are we changing and what direction are we going into moving forward?’ So, the change – call it team culture, call it chemistry, call it competitiveness – that changed two years ago and really defined what we wanted to do with the team and what kind of individuals we wanted on this team.
“We’ve really just worked with the group that was here two years ago and getting the freshman class that is here this year. They’re really buying in. We’re moving in a good direction, but it’s been a lot of work.”
Added Borst: “I’m incredibly proud.”
Kentucky rose above the 13-team field with a collective punch from its entire lineup.
Senior Sarah Shipley and junior Rikke Svejgård Nielsen were the most consistent of the bunch, tying for fifth place with scores of 2-under par. The 54-hole totals of 214 marked career lows for both players.
Svejgård Nielsen was in the mix late for the individual title and was at one point tied for first place midway through the round at 4-under par. A bogey on No. 17 unfortunately all but eliminated her and locked up the title for Indianapolis’ Pilar Echeverria at 5-under par, but the junior from Denmark still notched her sixth top-20 finish in 12 collegiate events.
Shipley, on the other hand, carded a 71 on the final day for a career-best finish. The senior had three top-10 showings prior to this weekend, but this tournament was her most complete performance with two under-par rounds.
Sophomore Casey Ott rounded out the top 10 with a 54-hole even-par score. It’s her fourth top-10 showing in her last seven college tournaments, and the 216 is a 54-hole collegiate best.
Freshman Jensen Castle carded the low round of the day for Kentucky after narrowly missing out on posting a team score in the previous two rounds. She looked like the golfer who posted back-to-back 69s at the Minnesota Invitational victory earlier in the month with a 70 on Sunday for a 1-over-par tournament total.
Freshman Marissa Wenzler closed out another solid weekend with a tournament total of 3-over par in just her second collegiate event.
“It’s awesome,” Svejgård Nielsen said of the win. “Just following up on Minnesota and winning, it feels really, really good and just the best start to the season we could ever imagine. We’re really happy.”
Nine of UK’s 10 players were in action this weekend with four Wildcats – senior Josephine Chang, junior Sarah Fite, sophomore Ryan Bender and freshman Kelsey Wylie – playing for individual scores.
Bender was the top finisher of the individuals in a 37th-place tie. Her 10-over-par 226 just narrowly missed her 54-hole career best.
Fite’s 74 on Sunday was her best of the weekend. She tied for 41st at 11-over par. Chang and Wylie both tied for 58th at 17-over par.
Freshman Janika Rüttimann, the lone Wildcat who didn’t play this weekend, has been unable to make her collegiate debut due to an injury.
Kentucky’s sensational fall is far from over. UK will try to make it three tournament championships in a row – a feat the program has never accomplished before – next month at the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational (Oct. 11-13 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) before closing out the fall at the Cardinal Cup (Oct. 18-20 in Simpsonville, Kentucky).
“With the team we have and how competitive we are and how much we push each other and support each other, I’m not surprised (at the start),” Shipley said. “I’m so happy and blessed that we have such a good group … so I’m excited to see the rest of the season.”
The Bettie Lou Evans Invitational, which was played at the U-Club’s Big Blue Course (par 72, 6,114 yards), is named after longtime UK head coach (1979 to 2001) and former director of operations (2002 to 2018) Bettie Lou Evans. Previously known as the Wildcat Fall Invitational before dedicating it to Evans, the tournament has been in existence since 1979 with periodic breaks.
UK has now won the tournament 13 times in its 30 years of play.
GO CATS –
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